Matt Stoller: Beyond Elections – Hedging Theory of Political Elites

By Matt Stoller, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. His Twitter feed is Cross posted from New Deal 2.0

Political analysts tend to gloss over what I would call hedging behavior on the part of political elites. While elections are somewhat random, the fact that you will be on the losing side of an election at some point is guaranteed. So politicos don’t ask: What’s the best way to win an election? Rather, they ask: What’s the best way to preserve my risk-adjusted position in the political ecosystem of influence and money? This means setting yourself up to win an election if possible, but not in an especially populist manner that could increase the downside of losing or falling into the minority.

Let’s take a look at someone that I liked a great deal while I worked in the House, a staffer named Doug Thornell, who worked for Rep. Chris Van Hollen. Van Hollen was the architect of the Democratic response to Citizens United, as well as the Chair of the electoral arm of the House Democrats, the DCCC. Thornell was his communications staffer, and you could always count on him for a quote to go after the GOP’s reliance on special interests. Thornell was also one of the Hill’s 50 most beautiful people in 2010.

In 2010, Doug Thornell would let the GOP have it.

“For 20 years, John Boehner has been in Washington caddying for powerful corporate special interests and working against middle class families,” Doug Thornell said. “He rushed to support President Bush’s Wall Street bailout, but when President Obama asked for his support for middle class tax cuts, help for small businesses and aid for those most in need, he turned his back.”

Fast-forward to 2011. Doug Thornell is now working for a group seeking to allow corporations to repatriate profits without paying taxes. His tune on special interests has changed.

“Our broken tax system currently penalizes U.S. businesses that want to bring their global earnings home,” said Doug Thornell, a former House Democratic staffer who is now a spokesman for the Win America Campaign. “The simple truth is there are few policy options left that will inject this amount of money into our economy and cost taxpayers next to nothing.”

You can say “how dare he do this!” But that’s actually beside the point. Doug is a highly trained and highly competent communications staffer, and he genuinely did want to help people when he worked for Van Hollen. Where else could he go after the Democrats lost the majority? It’s obvious that the career path options in the political class are so limited that they constrain behavior within the institutions themselves.

I sometimes see Wall Street titans or wealthy people bemoaning the corruption in DC. Hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt, for instance, says that he wants his taxes raised. This may be laudable, but it ignores the basic hedge in DC. If a politician votes against special interests, he will face enormous bitter attacks, and should he lose, he will fade into obscurity. If a politician votes for special interests, the converse dynamic will kick in. In such an environment, you wouldn’t expect brave politicians or staffers to last very long. And they don’t.

So anyway, this is just a way of explaining that advice along the lines of “here’s how to win” tends not to work in DC, because the problem isn’t just about how to win an election. Operating in DC is more like being a trader, where the amount of the downside matters as well. If you want to fix that dynamic, then make sure that people like Doug Thornell have places to go where they don’t have to work to help Google cut its own tax rate.

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    1. Foppe

      Yes, but as the conservatives figured out in the 1970s, you can influence policy this way, so these lobbyists have become a fixture of the political system. Just like marketing, it has become something unavoidable; and sadly, the only people who have money are the people who want the system to break. (And they also are the best at creating a platform on which to speak. Truth-out is hardly the place to go if you hope to be politically influential.)
      Not to be rude, Matt, but how much does this Doug fellow earn, and how much does he feel he’s worth?

  1. hapa

    people thought i was kidding when i proposed spending millions to build a white-hat landing strip in downtown beltway. nobody ever gets my jokes!

  2. attempter

    Where else could he go after the Democrats lost the majority?

    Into opposition as a democratic citizen? No, I’m just being silly now. (Of course, there was nothing worthwhile about Democrats being in the majority either.)

    It’s obvious that the career path options in the political class are so limited that they constrain behavior within the institutions themselves.

    Yes. So it follows that we must abolish the political class as such.

    Does anyone want to even try to justify the existence of political parasites at all, when people who actually work can rule themselves perfectly well, and indeed will do so far more effectively than parasites whose “job” is politics itself?

    ..should he lose, he will fade into obscurity.

    The point is not to accept the system lie that “obscurity” is a law of nature rather than an artificially imposed state which can be changed with a counterimposition. The point is to render what’s now obscure lucid, and what’s now omnipresent abolished.

    So anyway, this is just a way of explaining that advice along the lines of “here’s how to win” tends not to work in DC, because the problem isn’t just about how to win an election.

    Yes. The point is to abolish DC completely.

    If you want to fix that dynamic, then make sure that people like Doug Thornell have places to go where they don’t have to work to help Google cut its own tax rate.

    Well, we certainly shouldn’t care about filth like Thornell who are allegedly waiting for us to build a movement they can then hijack. They can drop dead.

    But the basic point is right on – we need to force new spaces into being and build new structures within them.

    But these spaces and structures are for we the builders. We need to purge completely this wretched notion that we’re still building for our “betters” to still come along and “lead” us. This despicable rump elitism is one of the reactionary affects we have to purge, while the new structures we have to build must be truly democratic, of the builders, by the builders, for the builders. By definition any DC swampdweller is not of us and cannot be a citizen of this movement, let alone have pretensions to “leadership” among it.

  3. John Merryman

    It’s a basic facet of any institution that those who promote the system rise and those who question it are sidelined, until such time as that system becomes totally isolated and collapses.
    The interesting part is how many such institutions, government, religious, economic, etc. around the world, all seem to be building up these destructive feedback loops concurrently.
    We have this philosophical and religious notion that the absolute, the universal state is some ideal toward which we strive, be it money, God, national strength, etc. The reality is the absolute is basis. It is the essence from which we rise, not an ideal from which we fell. So if there is is not mechanism to maintain some form of equilibrium, then things eventually spin out of control. So today, the banking system, security, religions etc. are all becoming cancers on the larger society.

  4. lambert strether

    Well, don’t keep us hanging! I find it odd that this is phrased in the imperative:

    If you want to fix that dynamic, then make sure that people like Doug Thornell have places to go where they don’t have to work to help Google cut its own tax rate.

    First, I do understand the anxiety of not having a job. But it’s very hard for me to believe, even with DISemployment at a 10% nominal (20% real) level, that a young, smart, networked guy like Doug Thornell can’t find another job where he’s not soiling himself. Why doesn’t he go back to his home state and work for a non-profit? I think, then, that what Stoller really means by “have places to go” is “can continue to live in the style to which they have become accustomed.”

    Second, if Stoller is really serious, and the idea is that Thornell just needs employment, as opposed to employment in a DC talking shop with the usual perks, the fawning interns, the glamorous lifestyle, and so forth, then the public policy answer is a Jobs Guarantee: A Federal Job for anyone who is willing and able to work. A year or so doing infrastructural work might be good for Thornell’s soul, besides paying the rent while he figures out what to do with his life that doesn’t involve helping rentiers continue to pillage the economy.

    Third, if there’s no way to change that dynamic, then I don’t see very many in-paradigm answers. Perhaps the American experiment has failed, and something new has to be tried.


    1. Art Eclectic

      Part of the problem is that once you’ve become entrenched in DC, bought a house and put your kids in school, it’s hard to pull up roots and take a job elsewhere. So, you start looking for other jobs in the area that have a compensation level of your previous gig, hey, you’ve got a mortgage to pay and two kids in private school….

      Like most of us, Thornell does what he is paid to do. Most people don’t have the luxury or commitment to take a career path based on personal beliefs, they just want a job that pays the bills and affords a comfortable lifestyle. It’s amazing how much cognitive dissonance you can ignore when the kid needs braces, the wife needs a new transmission and the house needs a new roof.

      1. Anonymous Jones

        Wait a second. Wait just a damn second!

        It seems as if you are trying to imply that this is more subtle than it appears. That in fact these people are just human, worried about the health and well-being of their families, and subject to self-delusion and cognitive bias like all the rest of us…and not completely and totally EVIL!

        You are scum, my friend. Despicable corporatocratic scum! Defending these CRIMINALS! We all know that apologia is only made by those who desire the evil to perpetuate itself, never those who wish to understand it.

        I wish we still had the stocks for people like you, and we could properly humiliate you in public by showing our true, ascendant and nonpareil morality by kicking and spitting on a man in restraints.

        To suggest that a supersystem has developed, one that acts like gravity, pulling the obviously conspiratorial water molecules downhill. Just disgusting. I detest you and your ilk. A plague on your house, good sir.

        1. JTFaraday

          Honestly, I have more respect for materially motivated people who just go out and get a straight up corporate job than I do for materially motivated people who do things like join post-progressive politics or post-progressive non-profits in order to pretend that they are more noble than they are.

          If you want to work for Google, go earn a technical degree and go work for Google.

          As it happens, parasitic political chameleon is a very low life form in a would-be democracy, dedicated to corrupting that which ought not be corrupted.

          1. Philip Pilkington

            I see where you’re coming from. But I think a lot of these people sort of fall into it. In their naive optimism they think they can make a difference and by the time reality has kicked them in the you-know-where they’re already reliant on the $$$s…

          2. JTFaraday

            Sure, they “fall into it,” just like people fall into business jobs that way more offensive than they ever imagined in the very same individual careerist innocence harbored by the political chameleon. I’m still not giving them a pass because they profess(ed) nobility.

          3. Yves Smith Post author

            I think you need to think through the implications of your views.

            The people who go into politics out of a hope of making a difference are young and idealistic. They then find out how hard it is to effect change but they want to persist. But in our class stratified society, it’s hard to make even a middle class living unless you go the corporate/establishment hack route.

            So you are asking people to give up being able to have families, etc. You are ceding this space to the independently wealthy and the worst careerists. That type has always been influential, but you’d have them as the only species in that ecosystem.

            There was a time when people went to DC out of notion of public service. You seem to forget that. Now the only people we have who can make a difference, it seems, are folks like Elizabeth Warren, who can take two years away from Harvard and not lose her tenured post. Exactly how many people can do something like that?

          4. Philip Pilkington

            You might have a point. People who veer into politics are often quite slimy. I considered it once, but then I pursued a career in journalism instead which isn’t remotely sli… oh my God… hang on a minute… Christ… what have I done with my life?

            *Breaks down weeping*

          5. JTFaraday

            “But in our class stratified society, it’s hard to make even a middle class living unless you go the corporate/establishment hack route. So you are asking people to give up being able to have families, etc.”

            I think the problem with this logic is that by effectively elevating a professional class of those who claim to have political and social interests out of the economic condition affecting much of the rest of the country is that they fail to believe they have a real stake in altering those conditions (because they don’t really).

            Consequently, the only thing that elevating such professionals does is provide the illusion that someone is “working on it,” and the public can go back to sleep. This is the whole purpose of the “liberal” political and intellectual classes and it has been going on for at least 30 years.

            I am withdrawing my support.

          6. Yves Smith Post author


            Wake up and smell the coffee.

            Have you missed how many lobbyists there are in DC, and the proliferation of think tanks? I’m not advocating this, those the realities on the ground. And it was the right, not the left, that are behind the massive scale up on this front. It’s well documented, with the famed Powell memo as the blueprint. Even traditional Republicans were dismayed, read David Brock’s The Republican Noise Machine or John Saloma’s Ominous Politics for contemporaneous accounts.

            Anyone who wants to create an effective real left movement has to consider how to deal with the apparatus.

            This is a matter of power. Power ain’t pretty. Not liking it and deploring it just means you cede your power to someone else. Jason seems to be the only guy who gets it.


          7. Philip Pilkington

            Just to chime in with a bit of a ‘positive’ here:

            I’m sure the right-wing Republicans were having these arguments back in the 60s and 70s too. All you guys need is a Carter — and I saw a video of Matt Taibbi on Olberman’s show discussing Bachman the other day; oh hang on, here it is:


            Define Carter:

            (1) Preceded by a pseudo-Republican who enacted left-wing policies
            (2) Rule characterised by economic stagnation and malaise
            (3) Growing discontent among the middle-class
            (4) Intellectually bankrupt
            (5) Asked the ‘little guy’ to take the hit (Malaise speech)
            (6) Death of American progressivism

            You guys are going to get your Carter moment really soon. You just don’t know it yet.

          8. JTFaraday

            “Have you missed how many lobbyists there are in DC, and the proliferation of think tanks? I’m not advocating this, those the realities on the ground. And it was the right, not the left, that are behind the massive scale up on this front…
            Anyone who wants to create an effective real left movement has to consider how to deal with the apparatus.”

            Yes, I know that. That’s why I don’t think that the would-be professional liberal left, is going to outshout that right wing noise machine by hiring kids to put on suits and pose for the webcams at think tanks.

            There may be fewer of these, but how many liberal leaning thinks tanks have drifted right over the years, on economic issues, in particular? How many liberal publications took up culture war issues in order to appear liberal by shouting down the “mouth breather Republicans” while sidling right on economics because their publishers were themselves a little too well heeled and making money by timing the market, because they were in the know?

            The liberal infrastructure *is* part of the problem that people looking to make political change need to get around, and sadly, I don’t think it’s the case that you can just write off think tanks and publications as they move right and start new ones with new “knowledge economy” people drawn from the same place in the class/ education structure and think that those people are going to do anything differently from the last set.

            Change is only going to come a byproduct of a popular movement, with a material stake in seeing change happen. It’s going to have to look more like the civil rights movement or–heaven forfend–the religious right. Or the Tea Party.

            It’s not going to come from a genteel think tank that replaces the Brookings Institution and a publication that replaces the American Prospect. Or any other organization that won’t dirty its hands by associating itself with the great unwashed.

          9. attempter

            You are ceding this space to the independently wealthy and the worst careerists. That type has always been influential, but you’d have them as the only species in that ecosystem.

            Maybe that would clear the air enough that people would wake up and realize that we don’t need and should do away with such a contrived, fraudulent, destructive “ecosystem”.

            So you are asking people to give up being able to have families, etc.

            So how does anyone else have families?

        2. pete muldoon

          I think the basic question is whether this system is beyond repair. If it is not, then we need people to work within it (although anyone who shills for Google in this manner does not appear to have the needed principles.

          But if it is beyond repair, then they only way it can be changed is by popular revolution of some sort, and hopefully not a violent one. For that to happen, the truly principled people will need to drop out and spend more time educating their fellow voters.

          This will mean some sort of bullshit job, no doubt, but as someone who lives in an RV and refuses to compromise my principles, I can tell you that I might be living poor, but it’s damn good for my soul.

          Don’t want to lose your house? Worried about your family? Not sure how to earn money? Don’t want to lose your health care?

          Well, Doug, you are supporting a system that imposes a life full of those worries on millions of your fellow Americans, and from here it sure sounds like you’re saying “Fuck you, I’ve got mine.”

          Doug, I promise not to envy your comfort if you promise not pretend to be my friend. Deal?

      2. anon48

        From the Movie “THE BIG CHILL”

        Jeff Goldblum (Michael)I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They’re more important than sex.

        Tom Berringer (Sam)Ah, come on. Nothing’s more important than sex.

        Jeff Goldblum (Michael)Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?

        @Art; I believe the above exchange is true for most of us. But I also believe for most part, everyday rationalizations for most folks are nothing more than the cloak placed around the little white lies that have to be dealt with on a daily basis (e.g. “Really should call mom, but can’t because I just don’t have any free time”). Obviously, some people have no problem selling tainted products or services to make a buck. Some commit horrific crimes. Don’t know how they rationalize that to themselves- maybe they’re different and don’t have a conscience so there’s no need to rationalize.

        However, for most people, I believe rationalizations don’t provide enough opacity to good conscience, once the act in question rises to a certain level of inappropriate behavior. When that happens they make a conscious choice not to participate.

        Our tax system continues to function because most Americans choose to comply voluntarily. Regardless of his past efforts, his current lobbying activities may help to undermine what little trust is left among the population. We’re in an inexorable downhill slide towards system failure. His efforts are just making the slope more slippery. How does he justify that in his own mind?

        If what you say is true, that guy’s entire life must be one big rationalization. The final point is- the need to rationalize seems to imply having a conscience. By implication, your post may be giving him just a little too much credit.

        1. anon48

          It strikes me that Matt’s article also provides rationalization/cover for a lobbyist who doesn’t deserve any.

    2. beowulf

      Kevin Phillips once suggested that Members of Congress be allowed to vote (and attend committee meetings) online from their district office. If Members and their policy staffers) did their work in their home state, it’d dramatically raise the transaction costs for lobbyists to rope and tie them.

      1. Peter T

        An interesting idea: Who do you think would gain power and who would loose it? And would legislation be better?

        I’m not sure if lobbyists would loose power, they could work congresspersons at home, too. There would be less interaction between congresspersons, which strikes me as bad. Would politicians need less money to pay their next campaigns when they could stay home and in better contact with voters?

    3. Yves Smith Post author

      You are missing the point, which is that the options are for him to exit politics altogether. The Republicans take care of their own, their are tons of think tanks and speaking gigs for them. The corporate Dems have copied that model, but it isn’t as fully built out.

      1. Seth

        Republicans have raised the ante with all their wingnut welfare institutions. The only choice for the left is to “ante up”.

        We have two problems with doing so:
        1. we’re too fragmented into specific issue groups
        2. we’re slow to accept the reality of dollar-democracy

  5. Moopheus

    So, in other words, this guy says whatever is politically expedient at the time for the people who employ him. In what way does this make him an example of a “brave” individual? Is this not normal procedure in Washington?

  6. JTFaraday

    “f you want to fix that dynamic, then make sure that people like Doug Thornell have places to go where they don’t have to work to help Google cut its own tax rate.”

    I am pretty sure that Mr. Thornell is where he is because that is where HE wants to be.

    Regardless of whatever we can say about hegemonic corporate power in the US and the world today, at the end of the day most of us still DO WHAT WE WANT, and we are still personally responsible for what WE DO when we are busy doing we want.

    Rescuing people who are only doing they want is a waste of time. What would we call such an effort? The Endangered Corporate Species Fund?

    Next you’ll be telling us we have to rehabilitate Ezra Klein or the Republic will perish.

  7. Jim Hannan

    The most important political debate last cycle centered on the renewal of the Bush tax cuts. The Democrats had a superb position. Their pollsters told them they had a very very popular position. What happened? Led by folks like Steny Hoyer and Chris Van Hollen, the Democrats gave up in October 2010. Six weeks before the election, they folded. 40 House members wrote a letter to Nancy Pelosi saying that they wanted to keep all the Bush tax cuts. So, the issue never came up in the House.

    I don’t know what influence this Doug Thornell had back then, but I would posit that he was carrying the water for the super rich even when he worked for Van Hollen.

    1. JTFaraday

      Good catch! That’s what irked me–this is yet another iteration of the usual sob story about How We Have to Rescue the Good Democrats.

      That, along with the implication that we are utterly dependent on Political Professionals.

      Say we endowed Stoller’s Endangered Corporate Species Fund, and hired a Manager to manage Mr. Thornell and colleagues. Before you know it The Manager will be back telling us, The Board, that in order to do more Good Works they will need to seek still further funding. Alas, we’re tapped out, so in comes the dirty money, along with the rationalizations, and it’s all over. It’s all so predictable.

      Bankrolling paid careerists because they Need a Job is not going to work any better than electing politicians that need to rely on raising campaign cash.

      Any change based movement will need to rely on the voluntarism of the personally affected and ethically motivated. When people realize There is No Job Here for you, and they still want to be involved, then we’ll have a movement.

      (I wonder if the usual victims will get out the vote for the D-Party in 2012).

      1. Matt Stoller

        That’s right, you can’t outbribe the people with all the money. The actual solution is strongly progressive taxation combined with strong and prestigious cultural leadership positions in non-money driven institutions. It worked from the 1940s to the 1970s.

          1. ambrit

            Dear Just Tired;
            Yes indeed, and then there was that 1950s Air Force transport cargo plane, the “Bumblebee,” that ‘theoretically’ couldn’t fly and ended up a workhorse unit. As has been pointed out to me recently, there are a lot of “popular misconceptions” floating around.

        1. JTFaraday

          “combined with strong and prestigious cultural leadership positions in non-money driven institutions.”

          Well, you don’t have that because most of those people despise the broad public, so it’s going to have to be a little dirtier than that.

          1. JTFaraday

            Oooh what is that? That sounds promising. Can I fit all of Washington DC in those things?

  8. doom

    By all means. Likewise, when our troops come home, we mustn’t let them languish in jobless squalor, we need to make sure they have people to kill at home.

    Trading in influence is a crime.

    1. Just Tired

      Interesting concept. My two sons are Air National Guard (C-130) pilots. They “left home” so to speak because there were (and are) virtually no jobs in the private sector. I can assure you that they wish nothing more than to “return” to a private sector job someday. The sad truth is that they, like very many young “patriots”, are just working in the only place where they can earn enough to provide for their families. Contrast that with their father who was conscripted into the infantry, put on an express track to Southeast Asia, and then spat upon when he returned to “the World”.

        1. Just Tired

          You obviously missed the late ’60s. It was right in the Golden State. FYI, things have not changed much. My youngest son (while in uniform) was accosted by a second generation flower child not long ago. He was accused of needlessly killing innocents (ostensibly by delivering food and other much needed supplies with his unarmed C-130). I asked him what he did in response. He said he didn’t have to do anything because a nearby grandma overheard Mr. Child, immediately got in his face, and told him to kiss off. I believe I will take the 5th as far as what I did.

          1. doom

            Didn’t happen to you, Did it? I knew it. In fact, there were no documented spitting episodes. Find me one. Historians have determined that was all clever GOP propaganda and you have internalized it.

            It’s unusual for people to confuse the cannon fodder with the murderous effect of their exploitation. I’m surprised that there’s anyone who doesn’t see the troops as economic victims, as you describe.

          2. Just Tired

            Kiss my democrat ass you doom POS. After I recuperated from wounds suffered in RVN in 1968 (My company had 10 KIAed in two days in April 1968), a friend got me a job driving officers ranked colonel and above at the Presidio of SF. Forgive me if I was not completely accurate. Because I had the foresight to have my window rolled up when I took my passengers on a tour of the Haight Ashbury one night, the spit did not actually make it to my person. A group gathered while I waited at a stoplight and saw fit to spit on the vehicle while shouting epithets and then, hopped up on whatever koolaid was in fashion, they rocked the vehicle threatening to tip it over. Subsequently, only unmarked vehicles were allowed for trips to the HA and only officers with very high ranks were able to go into the area. I served with the 25 Infantry Division in a sister battalion to Oliver Stone who based the movie Platoon on a vicious firefight at Firebase Burt. While driving in SF I was assigned to the Protocol Bureau Motor Pool. If you call me a liar again, I will electronically transmit my foot over the net and put it right up your POS doom ass. (and as I am afflicted with PTSD the only consequence will be that I will have to attend another hour of anger management class)

          3. Yves Smith Post author

            Just Tired,

            You are not going to like hearing this, but there is a very large literature that has demonstrated that false memories can be created.


            That’s from 2003.There is plenty of more recent research. And people DO internalize stories they’ve read in the media. I’m not saying you did, but you really ought to read the research.

            I know someone personally who was caught in a sting operation who was convinced he didn’t say something but it was there in the recording, crystal clear.

      1. RDE

        Thank God we still have one viable export industry left in this country that hasn’t been globalized entirely to China. By maintaining a military/technology system that is as large as that of the entire rest of the world, we retain a superiority in all aspects of mass murder that ensures that whenever a Saudi Arabian sheik shops for an AWAX plane or cruise missile, or a Mubarak needs the latest in Gitmo tested torture techniques we are the supplier of choice. Why, if we didn’t have a Pentagon INC and a Lobbyist Corps the house prices in the Federal District might have experienced the same disastrous drop seen in the rest of the country. And, if your sons can’t pass the physical to fly jet planes for the USAF there is always Blackwater or Haliburton.

  9. Jason

    Love this — it speaks to the core problem on the left which is a dearth of institutions that can exert power. The right preaches individualism but practices group power, while the left preaches that we’re all in it together and then leaves our activists working as isolated individuals.

  10. ScottS

    I was following this right up until the end. Sorry Matt, but what the hell are you talking about? The problem with politics lately is that THERE IS an exit strategy. If you get booed out by your constituency for shilling for some corporate criminals, you go to work for those exact corporate criminals. Peter Orszag ring a bell? Michael Brown and Ray Nagin consult for disaster recovery for chrissakes.

    We need to INCREASE the price of betraying the public interest, not lower it. Jail time and financial penalties at least double the amount involved in the corruption, and secondary liability for anyone who knew about it and didn’t report it.

    The Corrections Corporation of America wants to fill a bunch of new prisons. I say we help them out.

  11. Valissa

    So Matt, whatever happened to “Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics” (by Markos Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong)? You were once part of a CHANGE movement with those guys. I remember being part of MyDD and OpenLeft in the early days. Seems more like you all crashed and burned and joined those gates instead. I remember attending Yearly Kos 2, back when the netroots were the outsiders looking to change the establishment. Then almost all of you sold out to the Obama campaign (propagandized ‘change’ replacing authentic change), while simultaneously demonizing those of us who realized Obama was simply going to be Bush III, in your quest for ‘unity.’ Nice job!

    Hilariously at a recent netroots gathering there was talk about how the left needed to create something like the “tea party”… I just LMAO at that… that was pretty much the original intent of the netroots wasn’t it? But now that you have all sold out to the political establishment there are many excuses as to why the sellout occurred. Naturally it occurred because most humans desire status, money, power and access MUCH MORE than they do trying to make real change… which is difficult, challenging and unpopular with the current establishment.

    Once upon a time the netroots got alot more media attention. Their tactics were mostly copied by the tea partiers with the exception that the tea partiers actually held local rallies in lots of places and dressed in fun outfits (but generally same socio-economic demographic was involved despite different political beliefs). The netroots have become a pathetic caricature of their former selves.

    Glad to see that you managed to land with your feet on the ground and have a successful career ahead of you as a member of the political establishment. Hopefully you’ll be able to sneak in some positive change for the little people, but I’m not holding my breath. Naturally this requires making excuses for those such as Thornell.

    “Thornell was also one of the Hill’s 50 most beautiful people in 2010.” I’m sure this is a goal for many politicos. Because being “hot” is the coolest thing in town. Anthony Weiner appeared to care more about being “hot” than much of anything else, and look where that got him. The young and beautiful 24 y.o. women on the list who are professional lobbysists remind me of that 3 yo Chinese girl who famously said “I want to be a corrupt official when I grow up.”

    Going against the system by it’s very nature means staying outside of the system. Systems do change from the inside, but it’s a slow process based more on cultural change than anything else (amazing what one can learn from a political science textbook).

    IMO, 2 of the most effective groups (outside the system, yet hanging at the edge of it) are Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. That is because they have a clear non-partisan mission that they stick to, and both groups are constantly battling the small scale attacks on religious freedom (mostly by Christian evangelical groups) like one battles weeds in garden. And because they are non-partisan 501 3c’s, donations made to these groups are eligible to corporate matching donations (like from the company my husband works for), unlike standard political donations.

    In today’s Demopublican-Republicrat corporate supported political environment, the only way I can see to support change is to support groups that target single issues, that don’t get subsumed into “the system,” and don’t get into the business of supporting candidates or political parties over issues.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      That is COMPLETELY out of line. You paint Stoller as being a corporate hack when he hasn’t gone down that path, or even its lesser version, the Kossack thinkin’ they’re really progressives when they have just swallowed the Hopium.

      I don’t tolerate people making unwarranted, fact free attacks on guests bloggers. You’ve just projected all your frustration about the fauxgressives on one of the few on the left who isn’t. It obviously didn’t occur to you that he wrote this post to point out why there have been so many defections and what it might take to change things.

      1. Valissa

        Yves, you have the right to your opinion, and this is your blog. I don’t think my frustation with people like is Matt is NOT at all out of line. I feel like I spoke the TRUTH as I see and experience it. Commentors on this blog have said much harsher things about other people in other topics and you’ve let that slide. Since Matt is one of your buddies, and I prefer not to fight with people (and I do very much like your blog in general), I will refrain from commenting on any of his future posts. It is admirable to see you defending someone you value, even if we disagree.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          I am confident that I have a far greater understanding of the efforts that Matt has put in motion over the last couple of years than you do, and their impact. This isn’t a matter of being a “buddy”, which suggests bias. This is a professional assessment having seen how he operated as Grayson’s staffer and since then and having separately spoken to people who have known him over longer periods of time and are neither pushovers nor part of the Democrat hackocracy (or their useful idiots).

          So let me say it more clearly: you are way out of line and your take on him is dead wrong.

          1. pepe

            Many of your commenters have pointed out, albeit in less pointed tones, that this post is largely hacktacular. Why do we need to ensure that political operatives who might be sympathetic to progressive issues stay in DC, in Georgetown on the cocktail circuit? We can’t outpay/bribe the corporations. Either, you’re corrupt or you’re not corrupt. Having a family to feed won’t save individuals in the political class from the tricoteuses, nor should it.

          2. Valissa

            I hear you, Yves. May I respectfully suggest, however, that you don’t really know what I think of Matt. One comment does not signify an entire viewpoint, although many commenters here they they can divine such. I am certainly glad that there are people like him still attempting to work within the corporate-looting-politics paradigm. But since we are all grownups here and understand the limitations of having to work within “the system,” this article had me thinking “methinks thou dost protest too much.”

          3. Yves Smith Post author


            You said very clearly what you thought of Stoller:

            “So Matt, whatever happened to “Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics” (by Markos Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong)? You were once part of a CHANGE movement with those guys… Seems more like you all crashed and burned and joined those gates instead..”

            That expresses a point of view on Stoller and is an attack. Don’t try pretending otherwise.

            You also tried tarring him with the brush of being an Obama fan. For the record, Stoller an Obama critic (and has posts to prove it) back to when Obama was a state Senator.

            As I said before, I have little tolerance for anyone who attacks guest bloggers personally (by contrast, their arguments are fair game). And that is precisely what you did. I’ve banned people for remarks like the one you made above, so you are getting off easy by having me merely take you to task.

    2. pepe

      The problem with supporting single issue groups, or having a “movement” that consists largely thereof, is that divide and conquer is pretty much guaranteed. Solidarity is needed, but the groups all sell each other out, and NARAL even sells its own issue out.

      1. attempter

        You got that right. It looks like there are no exceptions to the rule that any special interest group will double cross the general democratic (political and economic) struggle for a crumb.

        And often not even for a crumb, but merely for a “seat at the table” where in theory they might someday get a crumb.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          It has been pointed out before that you paint only in Manichean extremes. That isn’t they way the world works. It isn’t even the way human nature works, and more generally, ignore the limits of action on this plane of existence. This realm is all about things not working right, of the difficulty of translating intent into effective action even for those who have good intentions.

          You refuse to consider any grey, when grey is where things happen. And grey that is almost white is very different from grey that is almost black, but you’d have them all be “not white, therefore must be black.”

          There was a great book review in the New Republic years ago on a book on the Nazis in Bulgaria. The reason they were an interesting object of study was that they were the only country with Nazi leadership that defied Germany and refused to round up and turn over its Jews to the Germans.

          I wish I had it with me so I could quote it, because the section in question was very eloquent. It mused that this episode illustrated that pure good was ineffective, that the only sort of good that could make a difference, such as saving lives, must be tainted with evil.

          1. attempter

            1. The corporatists aren’t actual Nazis (yet). We know perfectly well that if anyone within the system stood up to them they’d backpedal, because they’re cowardly bullies. Unfortunately “progressives” and special interest myopics are even more cowardly.

            2. There have been plenty of occasions where progressives could have unilaterally blocked vicious policies, like for example the vaunted “Progressive Block” vs. the health racket bailout. But that bait-and-switch, like the “public option” itself turned out to be a combo of cave-in and sellout.

            Speaking generally, if everyone in progressiveland had simply demanded single payer and refused to be budged from that position, we’d have had it easily.

            That’s just one example, but I can multiply them. The pro-choice groups sure did well selling out single payer. “First they came for the communists..”-type justice never came so fast. During the last Farm Bill negotiations the coalition against Big Ag subsidies was peeled off one crumb at a time. Since then most of those crumbs have been liquidated through the appropriations process. Even “mandatory” funding ain’t so mandatory. Several of the useful-idiot consumerist and food safety groups supported the Food Control bill. Anyone wanna bet how much pro-consumer and pro-safety policy they’ll get from that? Now we have the AARP chirping the “seat at the table” line which even most progressives are too embarrassed to use by now. Does anyone have any expectation that their acquiescence in a partial gutting of SS will accomplish anything other than to accelerate its complete gutting?

            3. Meanwhile, since you disagree, you must have some contrary examples where this “seat at the table” strategy worked. I can’t think of them myself, but surely there must be some more recent than WW2?

          2. Yves Smith Post author

            This was the Manichean part of your statement, and thus the one I was focusing on:

            “no exceptions to the rule that any special interest group will double cross the general democratic (political and economic) struggle for a crumb”

            No exceptions? Really? And for a mere crumb? That’s a patently ridiculous statement, particularly given that some issues divide the population into two camps, like abortion rights. Tell me how pro choice types could double cross the general population, much the less “will” and “for a crumb”.

            And tell me how you can prove “progressives” (not Dem hacks who try to adopt the progressive brand because liberal is now a dirty word and they still need to pretend they aren’t merely watered down Republicans who also don’t hate minorities) are “worse”? You simply deny that there is any such thing as someone who will stand up. And you are also engaging in false equivalences, saying that one group that called itself “progressive” in the health care debate stands for everyone who is struggling to pull the debate in this country in the direction creating a more just society. I’m loath to use the label “progressive” because the Dem hacks are all over it, but that does not mean that there are people who are serious about wanting things to be different and are willing to break china in the process.

          3. attempter

            Tell me how pro choice types could double cross the general population, much the less “will” and “for a crumb”.

            1. The health racket bailout was an assault on the general population. It’s a FIRE sector bailout and an austerity bill (intended to drive individuals into extortionately priced individual markets for worthless policies and absolve government and employers from taking on any payer responsibilities at all; that’s the austerity aspect).

            2. Pro-choice NGOs supported it. They didn’t even ask for a crumb in return. They did it gratis.

            3. Ergo, they double-crossed the people.

            No exceptions? Really? And for a mere crumb?….You simply deny that there is any such thing as someone who will stand up.

            I denied it because in years of observation I haven’t seen any exceptions. I invited you to cite some (let alone any kind of countertrend). You could easily disprove my contention that way. But you didn’t do so.

          4. diddy wa diddy

            Yes, it does seem attempter has a good-vs-evil view, black and white. But at least he is, in my opinion, always advocating on the (relative) side of the ‘good,’ and even fairly eloquently, within the limitations of black-and-white positions.

            And there’s one aspect I’ve pointed out myself: the dialog in general has shifted so far to the ‘right,’ it’s fair to be as far ‘left’ as you possibly can in good conscience, if only to help balance the scales.

  12. Philip Pilkington

    Pepe @ 3.01pm:

    “Why do we need to ensure that political operatives who might be sympathetic to progressive issues stay in DC, in Georgetown on the cocktail circuit? We can’t outpay/bribe the corporations. Either, you’re corrupt or you’re not corrupt.”

    Pepe @ 2.56pm

    “Solidarity is needed…”

    Those comments make my brain hurt so much my feet are getting sore…

    1. pepe

      Sit down and give your brains a rest then?

      You make it sound like so-called progressive groups in DC are part of the solution. The Roosevelt Institute is willing to put the New Deal on the table. NARAL just wants funds apparently, but won’t actually pull support for candidates who actively work against them (Lieberman). Thornell is supposed to get a pass because he’s a “good” guy? From where I sit, he isn’t. He’s done a 180 for $. DC would be better off if it was returned to the swamp from which it arose.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        Now that the current CEO is leaving and a search for a successor is underway, Roosevelt Institute might get back on track by virtue of the bad press about the Peterson connection. I stress “might”.

        Roosevelt Institute in its current form has been severely compromised and a lot of the fellows there are pretty uncomfortable with that and are pushing back. So this is all in play.

        As I said in my initial post on their participation in the Peterson forum:

        The Roosevelt Institute is far from the only example of left-wing institutions having their missions undermined and eventually controlled by conservative patrons. We’ve complained before about the cluelessness of left-leaning organizations in the US. One of the big reasons that what is now the center of the political spectrum here is extreme right pretty much everywhere else is that there has been an orchestrated, forty-year campaign to make American values consistent with the needs and interests of large corporations.

        And more broadly, there are potentially ways to have an effective progressive movement and have a wedge participation in the Beltway….but more on that later.

  13. Stephen Malagodi

    Let’s try this. Let’s suppose:
    There is no actual winning or losing in the current setup. What there is is a working coalition of both parties that compete for dominance. The reward of being dominant is that more money flows through your channels. The downside of being sub-dominant is only that less money flows through your channels.
    Unlike in other countries where things are more uncertain, losing in politics often means losing your life, losing an election in this country means simply relocating to another channel in the funding stream (or should we call it a river?).
    That’s why Thornell is where he is. That’s why ‘fading into obscurity’ can be a very good, profitable thing. Nobody goes from the political class to poverty, unless they actually go to jail, and even then, it’s a short stint in purgatory.
    So Mr. Stoller, the story you tell just does not match up with the reality that I see. I don’t think we should have to ‘bribe’ Mr. Thornell with a guaranteed job with the party somewhere to do the right thing. He’s already got a skill set that pretty much guarantees income.
    Oh, wait… I forgot. Mitt Romney says he’s ‘unemployed’.

  14. Benghazi Medical Crisis

    make sure that people like Doug Thornell have places to go where they don’t have to

    One of our basic concepts in crowd control == give the rioters wide open access to escape. You got to always leave at least one large street or open area to their retreat before you lay it on the line. Not a bad thing to remember in partisan politics, I would guess.

  15. steelhead23

    Matt, the failure here is not Doug’s, it is the American political system. Betrayed by the media and corrupted by the elite, the concept of populism within the beltway is simply farcical. Your piece dovetails nicely with the upending of the First Amendment, capped yesterday by the Supreme Court’s ruling that Arizona can make no effort to level a badly tilted political playing field.

    In truth, Americans are lazy about politics. This laziness has doomed representative democracy. At this point, there is little, short of insurrection, that could revive it. And if there were insurrection, my guess would be that fascism would be a more likely outcome than democracy. Thanks for telling the truth, even if it is quite ugly.

  16. doom

    Thing is, to effect significant change you really don’t need a million finely-articulated policy proposals and reform implementation roadmaps and communications strategies. That’s really just elite makework.

    The potentially revolutionary changes worldwide all hang on a word or two: dignity, or self-determination. The movements took off because of bottom-up organization, and the byword is sufficient because it already has a consistent, coherent, and complete doctrine (namely human rights, or rule of law, or treaty law or whatever you want to call it). Why go and reinvent that wheel? It’s built for degenerate states like ours. Just pop open a can. We do not need mongolian hordes of redundant Capitol Hill kids trying to make their mark with their original creative thoughts. Top-down organization like that is inherently susceptible to co-option or the ‘veal pen.’ Bottom-up organization, on the other hand, is chaotic and frustrating, and it’s a rare individual who can do it right (In this culture, anyway. Thank goodness we’re multicultural.) But it’s almost impossible to stop.

    Decentralized popular education grounded in human rights and humanitarian law, with practical projects of local import, that’s the ticket.

    What a great frickin controversy.

  17. The lives of (some) others

    This is fun!
    I have no idea who Stoller or Thornell is, but clearly modern Greeks had an answer for this employment dilemma: each party in power make such political appointees civil servants with tenure! Until the country faces default, that is.
    After this interesting discussion, I have to bite the bullet and go and study this new cognitive theory developed by some French philosophers (overcoming my post DSK French philosopher aversion), as it seems to be supported by empirical evidence I encounter every day in this and other similar blogs. The theory posits that reason in humans evolved for winning debates and arguments, and not for establishing the truth by logic. Or something like that.

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