The Wind of Change: What’s Happening in Venezuela?

(The following is a guest post by Alissandra Stoyan, a PhD candidate in Political Science at UNC – Chapel Hill. Her research examines how presidents pursue ambitious reform efforts in a democratic context. She has conducted field work in Latin America, and her dissertation examines recent Venezuelan politics as one of her primary cases.)

I am happy and I see a great future for Venezuela… Enough words have been said, enough fighting has occurred, enough disasters have taken place. The failures are over and done with, I feel sure of this and happy about it. I feel optimistic because, as my grandmother used to say, you can smell the wind of change, it is in the air.” – Hugo Chávez, February 10, 2004. Quoted in Guevarra, Aleida. 2005. Chávez, Venezuela & the New Latin America: An interview with Hugo Chávez. New York: Ocean Press. Pp 110.

It started on February 2. In San Cristobal, a city in the mountains near the Colombian border, students from three local universities were outraged over the violent assault and attempted rape of a fellow student. These twenty-somethings have only known the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Socialism of the 21st Century, and the leadership of Hugo Chávez. They were about 4 years old when Chávez won the presidency with an overwhelming 56% of the vote in a single round. The following year, a new Constitution was written to re-found the state and drastically change the political process in Venezuela. They grew up with access to free health care and free education, including their current university education. Political polarization has been a constant; they and everyone they know are either Chávistas or anti-Chávistas because there has never been much in-between. Insecurity and impunity has risen dramatically throughout their lives. The number of homicides tripled in Venezuela between 1996 and 2006, according to the NGO Venezuelan Violence Watch. In 2012, the Venezuelan homicide rate was 73 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. In the same year, neighboring Colombia had a rate of approximately 31 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants and the US had a rate of 4.8 per 100,000 inhabitants. Likewise, the economy is in a dire condition. As they think about graduation, these students face rising inflation (currently 56%), widespread shortages of goods, and uncertainty over future employment. Eva Golinger, author of The Chávez Code, has referred to the student movement as “Occupy Wall Street in reverse,” implying that Venezuelan students are siding with the 1%. Likewise, Chávez’s ‘old guard’ laments that the younger generation is ungrateful for what they have, without respect for the epic triumph against neoliberalism and entrenched elite interests.


(Rodrigo Abd/AP)

In “Is Venezuela Burning?,” published in Jacobin, Mike Gonzalez rightfully demonstrates that the issues in Venezuela are actually much deeper and more complex than they appear on the surface. The protests in San Cristobal might have remained an isolated incident, never to be reported in international media, if not for the involvement of prominent opposition members and the harsh and disproportionate response of the state. The opposition has seized this moment as an opportunity to channel discontent toward Nicholas Maduro’s removal after only 10 months in office. Leopoldo López, an economist educated in the US, and Maria Corina Machado, an opposition congresswoman, have called for ‘La Salida,’ a strategy to force Maduro to step down. With their involvement, protests have spread to nearly every major city in Venezuela. As one twitter user quipped: “Carlos Andrés Pérez had a Caracazo. Maduro has a Caracazo, Valenciazo, Barquisimetazo, Bolivarazo, Maracaibazo…”

More widespread confrontations have led to new grievances related to the states’ response to protest, particularly surrounding issues of self-censorship of the press and the strong-handed and repressive tactics of the police and other government agencies. Greater focus has also been directed at the violence perpetrated by armed colectivos, motorcycle-riding paramilitary groups in defense of the revolution. One of the largest groups, the Tupumaros, lost one of its own leaders and is also allegedly responsible for another death in these protests. As conflict peaked on February 12, the Venezuelan intelligence service (SEBIN) disobeyed direct orders by taking to the streets with their weapons. Maduro has vowed to hold them accountable, removing the head of the agency and arresting several officials in connection to deaths. On February 19, López was arrested, effectively becoming a martyr for the radical opposition’s cause. President Obama, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch all condemned his arrest. David Smilde, a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America has an interesting take on the potential political incentives for Maduro to foster confrontation and keep López in the spotlight as the leader of the opposition, and so does Francisco Toro at Caracas Chronicles. Lastly, the military has moved into Táchira to quell protest, and there were reports of an internet and media blackout there. Reading of these developments, I can’t get Simón Bolivar’s words out of my head: “Maldito el soldado que apunta su arma contra su pueblo“: Cursed is the soldier who aims his gun at his own people.


(Rodrigo Abd/AP)

The dead are young, members of both sides of this conflict. El Universal has generated an interactive map (Spanish) of those who’ve died. On February 12 in Caracas, some of the first to die were: Bassil Da Acosta (24), a student protestor, and Juan “Juancho” Montoya (51), a well known colectivo leader and pro-government community activist. Both were shot in the head. A little later on the same day, another protestor, Roberto Redman (31) was shot in the face with rubber pellets. On Feburary 17 in Sucre, José Ernesto Ménedez (17) was run over at a protest by a vehicle driven by a PDVSA worker. On February 19 in Valencia, student and beauty queen, Génesis Carmona (22), was shot in the head. Julio Eduardo González (25), an attorney, crashed his car trying to drive around a barricade. And that evening, Geraldine Moreno (23), a student, was shot in the face with rubber pellets in front of her family’s home. On February 20 in Mérida, Delia Elena Lobo (37) died from injuries sustained when she drove her motorbike into a barb wire barricade. In Lara, Arturo Alexis Martínez (58) was shot in the chest while cleaning up debris in the street. He was the brother of Francisco Martínez, Congressman for the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV). On the evening of February 21 in Caracas, Elvis Rafael Durán (29) drove his motorbike into a wire that had been stretched across the road by protesters, slitting his throat. In response, the government has issued an arrest warrant for retired General Angel Vivas, who sent this tweet (Spanish) the day before the incident, suggesting the tactic to the opposition for combating the colectivos. Since then, Vivas has been resisting arrest at his home, dressed in a flak jacket and armed with an assault rifle and a handgun. His supporters built barricades in the street and cheer him on as he vows not to surrender. On February 23 in Caracas, José Alejandro Márquez (43) was beaten by the Bolivian National Guard and was declared braindead. On February 24 in Táchira, Jimmy Vargas (34) was hit in the head with a canister of tear gas launched by the Bolivarian National Guard, lost his balance, and fell from the second story of a building. That same day in Cagua, Johnny Carballo (43) was shot in the head by tupamaros (armed motorists). At least one additional unidentified young man was shot on February 25 during the looting of a grocery store in Maracay. In total, there have been nearly 150 wounded and over 500 detained, though the vast majority have been released.


(Meridith Kohut/New York Times)

Maduro is not Chávez. He is politically weaker and lacks the charisma of his predecessor. Still, he has gone to great lengths to invoke the iconic leader. On February 17, in the midst of this conflict, he resurrected Chávez’s tweets from a year ago: “Sigo aferrado a Cristo y confiado en mis médicos y enfermeras. Hasta la victoria siempre!! Viviremos y venceremos!!!“: I am still clinging to Christ and trusting in my doctors and nurses. Toward victory always!! We’ll live and we’ll overcome!!! Though cancer would take Chávez’s life in less than a month, his words promise immortality – the immortality of his revolution. These days, it seems, Maduro sigue aferrado a Chávez. The picture below recently appeared in Slate with the caption: “Supporters of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro hold a protest…” It’s telling that, a year later, the imagery of the revolution still belongs to Chávez. The crucial question is whether Chávistas are abandoning Maduro. Is the ‘son of Chávez,’ losing support among his base? The answer will determine where these protests are headed and whether they might slip out of Maduro’s control. So far, the Chávista governor of Táchira has distanced himself from the government (Spanish). He reacted against the government’s repression, particularly the decision to send fighter jets over his state. He said: “When Chavez was in government I had autonomy in my language and my thoughts, and I will maintain it now more than ever.” But the blog post by Francisco Toro, linked above, indicates that it’s unlikely that this will spread beyond the middle class.


(Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images)

Another key issue is the inability of the opposition to develop a coherent plan. As Jorge Ramos Ávalos, a Mexican journalist and news anchor for Univision, put it (Spanish): “The old and rotten is dying, but the new has not yet been born.” His sentiment is clearly biased toward the opposition but it also illuminates a central problem with all this protest. The radical opposition has failed to develop a useful dialog beyond ousting Maduro. On this point, Maduro is an upstanding democrat. He has stated that the opposition should instead be preparing signatures for a 2016 recall referenda, a legal mechanism in the 1999 Constitution, to remove him from office with a majority of the popular vote. Ultimately, what are protestors trying to achieve and can Maduro respond adequately to their grievances? Capriles has begun to develop an agenda and at least a preliminary list of demands (Video in Spanish, list begins at 15:51), which includes: freeing all detained students and López; ending persecution, repression, and permitting exiled Venezuelans to return; disarming the paramilitaries; among other things. Some are reasonable, some are vague, and some are very unlikely.

The Maduro government and its supporters are maintaining that these protests are a plot by the radical opposition to draw international intervention (Spanish). Early on, there were reports of the opposition destroying its own neighborhoods to make it look like the work of the colectivos and to incite more protest. Steve Ellner, social scientist and author of Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the Chavez Phenomenon, has underscored the idea that the opposition is primarily responsible for violence. Moreover, Eva Golinger spoke of an international conspiracy to commit economic sabotage, with elites hoarding products to provoke shortages and promote panic among the population. In this view, the United States is trying to “make the economy scream” in Venezuela, a la Nixon and Allende. More recently, the Maduro administration has contended that the former president of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe, is playing a role in the violence. They claim that the opposition is working with Colombian mercenaries to fuel violence and caste blame on the government.

It’s hard to determine what’s going on from a desk in Chapel Hill, NC. The degree of misinformation as these events have unfolded demonstrates that Venezuela is perhaps more polarized than it has ever been. No one tells both sides of the story; everyone has an angle. In the chaos of early protests, even Venezuelan scholars and experts tweeted more questions than answers: “Can we confirm this? Is there proof?” On February 13, I scanned my twitter feed for news and a repeating image caught my attention. There were two men, one with a camera and the other with a gun trained on each other. It turned out that it was taken in Singapore and had nothing to do with Venezuela (see this and other examples of false tweets debunked here and here). Today, Maduro and his supporters are using the hash tag: #MaduroHombreDePaz. Meanwhile, outside on UNC’s campus, someone has diligently scrawled in chalk: #SOSVenezuela #PrayForVenezuela. Searching twitter for those hash tags unleashes a string of images and YouTube videos (like this one) that make me feel sick and helpless. Even if I was among the barricades in the streets of Caracas, I’m not sure if I’d know what to believe. The truth in Venezuela, as in many places, always seems to lie somewhere in between.


(Meridith Kohut/New York Times)

The situation is all the more dangerous given that there appears to be no tractable middle ground in Venezuela. Both sides are calling for peace but it’s unclear what they mean. Capriles appeared to be willing to negotiate with Maduro, but on Monday he rejected a meeting with the president. Demanding López’s release, Capriles said: “I’m not going to be like the orchestra on the Titanic. I’m not the musician. The boat is sinking, and I’m the one who’s playing the music? No sir, Nicholas, you’re not going to use me.” Is that really the wind of change in the air? I’m not sure, but one thing is certain. Where there is no room for compromise, where there are only Chávistas and anti-Chávistas, fascistas and anti-imperialistas, as it has been for fifteen years now, it’s difficult to envision a peaceful and democratic way forward.

The Left’s Omertà

By Kindred Winecoff

You can’t be a star for what you say, only for the way you say it. Far from being driven apart by differing opinions, [Christopher] Hitchens and [Robert] Conquest were drawn together by their common love of language. The long consequence of their encounters in those years can be enjoyed in the opening pages of Hitchens’ little book Orwell’s Victory (2002) [ed.: Why Orwell Matters in the U.S.], where its author is to be found conceding that Conquest might have had a point about the Bolsheviks all along. But those who never doubted that he did can’t expect credit for having been right. What we can expect is to be dismissed for having been on the Right. To be a liberal democrat was considered reactionary then, and to have been so then is to be considered reactionary now. People who have abandoned erroneous opinions would be giving up too much if they ceased to regard people who never held them as naive. As Revel pointed out, the Left demands a monopoly of rectification.

— Clive James, criticizing one of his friends while writing on Solzhenitsyn, As of This Writing, p. 225 of the 2003 Norton hardback.

I have enjoyed and profited from much of Corey Robin’s writing, but lately he’s been tilting at windmills just a bit. Last year he famously charged Hayek, and with him the rest of the right — the definition of which seems to be those for whom Robin does not care — of pronounced übermenschy tendencies. The convoluted and conspiratorial reasoning of that essay was more reminiscent of a Dan Brown plot or a Glenn Beck chalkboard than Robin’s earlier work. I objected to that article at the time and hoped it was just a misfire, but since then he’s conjured more and more smoke from less and less fire. The Petreaus Affair was, quite simply, not worth the time and effort that was put into it. The BDS/ASA kerfluffle, in which Robin insisted that boycotts were unprincipled only if they were in response to other boycotts, was even more absurd. (If you don’t support BDS and the ASA boycott guess what! You’re a “latter-day McCarthyite“. There should be a version of Godwin’s Law for McCarthyism, which we’ll come back to in a minute.)

Now he has written this:

James Madison, Federalist 51:

The constant aim is…that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.

Elia Kazan, on why he named names:

Reason 1: “I’ve got to think of my kids.”

Reason 2: “All right, I earned over $400,000 last year from theater. But Skouras [head of Twentieth-Century Fox] says I’ll never make another movie. You’ve spent your money, haven’t you? It’s easy for you. But I’ve got a stake.”

Which led to an exchange somewhat limited by the 140 character cap:

As I said, I understood Robin’s attempt at making a point. But the point is invalid, and Robin’s blind spot is disturbing. If Kazan’s testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) evidenced a public disaster then the disaster had occurred well before Kazan entered the room. Kazan’s choice was to speak truthfully to a democratically-elected legislature — at a time when the Democratic party controlled the House, Senate, and Presidency — that was investigating sabotage against the government of the United States, or to defy it. At first he defied it. Under increasing pressure he named eight names, all of which were already known by the HUAC. Of those, one was already dead, another also testified and contracted with Kazan to name each other so both would avoid blacklists (they did), and the others continued to work on the same New York stages that Robin indicates were more than good enough for Kazan. Kazan’s reputation was the most damaged of any as the result of this event. So where’s the public disaster?

All of those Kazan named were members of or fellow travelers with the same American communist party (CPUSA) that was allied with Stalin before and after the war (including before, during, and after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) and that had “tried” Kazan via an internal judicial proceeding for the crime of being insufficiently activist when doing so would have cost Kazan his career at a stage when he wasn’t well off. Kazan kept his ideals but left the Party as a result. It is worth repeating: Kazan’s livelihood was threatened by American communists in the 1930s, well before Congress came calling. If the CPUSA had been successful in their longer-term revolutionary aims his livelihood — and given the Stalinist proclivities of the American Party at the time, perhaps his life — would have been jeopardized once again. Even after leaving the Party Kazan remained an ideological communist until the Hitler-Stalin pact destroyed what illusions still remained. That was his Kronstadt moment, as it was for many communists.

So what principle was at stake for Kazan, exactly, that he should have sacrificed his own interest to avert “public disaster”? To defend those who had previously bullied him and would undoubtedly do so again if given the chance? To support the members of and sympathizers with a Party that had stuck with Stalin through his murderous show trials, his cynical alliance with Hitler, and his imperial occupation of Eastern Europe? What kind of principle is that? Or, as Kazan put it to Arthur Miller,

To defend a secrecy I don’t think right and to defend people who have already been named or soon would be by someone else… I hate the Communists and have for many years, and don’t feel right about giving up my career to defend them. I will give up my film career if it is in the interests of defending something I believe in, but not this.

This is not hard to understand. There are some people in my life for whom I would sacrifice quite a lot. There are others for whom I would sacrifice a much smaller amount. And there are still others for whom I would sacrifice nothing, because they have wronged me and those that I love or because they espouse principles that I find repugnant. By all accounts, Kazan considered the question in earnest and recognized no principle worth defending. From my vantage point it is difficult to disagree: CPUSA was a repugnant institution, and members of repugnant institutions should not be guaranteed lucrative positions in glamorous industries if only they can convince everyone to hide the fact of their membership, whether it has lapsed or not. Still, rather than acting vindictively, Kazan testified in a way that would cause the least pain for himself and for those around him: he named names already named. He then used the career he saved to make numerous movies from the perspective of the non-communist and non-authoritarian left, including Viva Zapata! the year after his HUAC testimony and On the Waterfront the year after that.

I will agree with everyone who says that the HUAC over-stepped its bounds by miles, that many or most of the members of the HUAC were more concerned with political gain than principle, and that the entire scene was noxious. But the left’s valorization of all those who refused to testify before HUAC and vilification of those who did raises a different set of questions. Who today would side with Alger Hiss over Elia Kazan? Because when Hiss perjured himself concerning his own espionage — as the result of a libel trial Hiss initiated against Whittaker Chambers, it must be remembered; he brought it on himself in more than one way — he not only bamboozled the left but also catalyzed HUAC into the McCarthyite machine in the first place. (It also jump-started the previously mediocre career of Richard Nixon.) And it was a perjury. Nor was Hiss the only one. Had Harry Dexter White lived a bit longer he would have become even more famous than Hiss.

Kazan was brought before HUAC four years after White lied under oath and then died under the strain and two years after Hiss was convicted. In between those two events Richard Nixon graduated from the House to the Senate and McCarthy went on the war path. Both of those events would have been much less likely had the postwar left not unthinkingly supported Hiss. Meanwhile, Kazan did not commit espionage, falsely accuse others of libel, perjure himself, or otherwise discredit the anti-communist left for decades. He did not create a political launching pad for McCarthy and Nixon. He did not reveal any new information. It is quite possible that he did not even materially injure anyone’s life or reputation, at least beyond the extent that he would have been injured had he refused to name already-known names. And if Kazan repudiated the CPUSA — an organization that acted in secrecy with the avowed goal of demolishing the non-Soviet left and destroying the American state — by 1952 it was certainly worth repudiating. According to the International Committee of the Fourth International (in a post pillorying Kazan’s defenders, no less):

Tragically for them and the working class as a whole, the Communist Party by the time of the blacklist had been destroyed as a vehicle of progressive social change. It was a Stalinist party, with a cynical and treacherous leadership, loyal to the twists and turns of the bureaucracy in Moscow.

How is this not worth denouncing? The Trotskyists may be biased but they are not wrong. And yet it is Kazan who is scorned rather than Hiss, despite the fact that the latter did exponentially more damage to the credibility of the left than the former. Kazan contributed to the purging of Bolsheviks from the left — a necessary precursor to the social democratic gains of the succeeding decades — at the expense of making eight members of America’s upper class slightly less materially comfortable.

Why is this so objectionable? According to Robin, it is because Kazan acted in his “private interest” while being interrogated by a government action that he opposed and initially resisted. Robin believes Kazan should become an object lesson for why the Right is wrong. Nevermind that Kazan remained a liberal all his life. Nevermind that Kazan’s testimony, in the context in which it was given, was not merely a question of private interest. Had Kazan wanted to do more damage to the left he undoubtedly could have.

Corey Robin’s post is mood affiliation in pure form. I have no idea what Robin actually thinks of Hiss. Everything he has written about this period acknowledges only reactionary suppression, never the possible reasons for it. The index of both his books contain no mention of Hiss, Google reveals nothing written by him on the subject, and the proceedings from this conference have transcripts for every single speaker but Robin. The silence is curious for someone who has written so extensively on the issues that Robin has, especially when his indices reveal multiple entries for Chambers, communist collaborators, and the Red Scare. Robin is definitely not ignorant. The question is whether he is credible. He increasingly reads like an out-of-time 20th century apologist for anything that is not Right.

Of course, Robin is only using Kazan to discredit Madison and then, via some unclear transitivity, modern-day right reactionaries or maybe the entire structure of American governance. But why? Madison was one of the strongest of the nascent America’s republicans, and in the snippet Robin pulls (as elsewhere) he essentially adopts the language of Rousseau. Here is what happens during the elipses in the quote Robin provides above:

… to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other…

That is, Madison wishes for a broad distribution of power, and constant competition among those who would seek it, so that none of them may ever fully obtain it. Robin finds this objectionable because private power is one part of that equation. This is expressing too much and too little all at once. Can private interests cause public disaster? Of course. Does this imply in any way that private interests ought to be abolished? There is not a single data point in history that recommends this conclusion. The irony in all of this, of course, is that Robin finds Kazan’s collaboration with the government objectionable. If a democratically-elected government in which all branches are controlled by the only left party with substantial popular support does not meet his criteria for “public interest” then what would? It was 1952… the other options were not appealing.

Christopher Hitchens once displayed the attitude Clive James criticized by writing about the “loyalty oath”: “If Hiss was wrong, then Nixon and McCarthy were right. And that could not be.” But it was, in this case even if in no others, and it remains so, and Kazan either knew it or sensed it. The movement that coalesced in defense of Hiss’ fabrications is not worth defending now. It galvanized all the worst reactionaries in the postwar era. It contributed nothing to the improvement of the lives of the working class. None of the names Kazan gave were even a part of the working class, nor did they represent it. Meanwhile, the language is important: only the credulous take loyalty oaths. Kazan broke omertà 62 years ago, and Robin isn’t finished with him yet. 

The nice thing about history is that we get to see how it ran. It turns out that the greatest period for the working class occurred in the United States in the twenty years after Kazan testified. This flowering was not a product of CPUSA agitation but of the incrementalist liberals like Kazan that they opposed. Meanwhile, a short four years later, another Kronstadt moment would occur. At that moment who was overdue for reflection: Kazan or his former friend Arthur Miller, who attacked Kazan by writing The Crucible? They later reconciled, and once Miller finally got around to protesting the suppression of expression in the USSR his works were subsequently banned. He at least learned the lesson. (Sort of. He refused to put his name to an open letter protesting Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie.)

The journalist Elmer Davis once wondered “How long will these ex-Communists and ex-Sympathizers abuse the patience of the vast majority which had enough sense to never be Communists or Sympathizers at all?” Quite a long time, apparently. Robin’s ability to castigate the usual suspects — Burke, Buckley, and Bush — has always been impressive, but by this stage one wonders if he’s run out of turf. When he has moved into new areas he has displayed reactionary tendencies of his own: if it ever was Right it can’t ever be right. This is demoralizing for those of us who identify with the left but have no interest in genuflecting to “radical” absolutists of yesteryear or today. In the end such demands will only produce ambivalence in many, as they did in Kazan:

I don’t think there’s anything in my life toward which I have more ambivalence, because, obviously, there’s something disgusting about giving other people’s names. On the other hand . . . at that time I was convinced that the Soviet empire was monolithic…. I also felt that their behavior over Korea was aggressive and essentially imperialistic…. Since then, I’ve had two feelings. One feeling is that what I did was repulsive, and the opposite feeling, when I see what the Soviet Union has done to its writers, and their death camps, and the Nazi pact and the Polish and Czech repression…. It revived in me the feeling I had at that time, that it was essentially a symbolic act, not a personal act. I also have to admit and I’ve never denied, that there was a personal element in it, which is that I was angry, humiliated, and disturbed–furious, I guess–at the way they booted me out of the Party…. There was no doubt that there was a vast organization which was making fools of the liberals in Hollywood…. It was disgusting to me what many of them did, crawling in front of the Party. Albert Maltz published something in few Masses, I think, that revolted me: he was made to get on his hands and knees and beg forgiveness for things he’d written and things he’d felt. I felt that essentially I had a choice between two evils, but one thing I could not see was (by not saying anything) to continue to be a part of the secret maneuvering and behind the scenes planning that was the Communist Party as I knew it. I’ve often, since then, felt on a personal level that it’s a shame that I named people, although they were all known, it’s not as if I were turning them over to the police; everybody knew who they were, it was obvious and clear. It was a token act to me, and expressed what I thought at the time….
I don’t say that what I did was entirely a good thing.

What’s called “a difficult decision” is a difficult decision because either way you go there are penalties, right? What makes some things difficult in life is if you’re marrying one woman you’re not marrying another woman. If you go one course you’re not going another course. But I would rather do what I did than crawl in front of a ritualistic Left and lie the way those other comrades did, and betray my own soul. I didn’t betray it.

A vibrant 21st century left does not need to assume every position of its 20th century forebears. It can, and should, be reflective. It can, and should, be willing to acknowledge the gains made by the liberal capitalist compromise. And it can, and should, acknowledge that loyalty oaths and secrecy pacts were mistakes of the past, while openness and transparency — even in the face of persecution — is self-recommending. Rather than excoriate a potential liberal ally for making a reasonable choice under duress sixty years ago we can, and should, try to build broader coalitions rather than narrower. Any left that seeks to sublimate all private interests into knee-jerk collectivism in the 21st century, or any other, is doomed.

A Fistful of Computational Philosophy

By Adam Elkus

It’s been a very interesting time for discussions about modeling and the philosophy of science.

First, my GMU colleague David Masad has a very intriguing post on computational social science (CSS), machine learning, and models.

Just as a data science approach may be insufficient on its own for finding the qualitative and emergent characteristics of a system, agent-based models may benefit from more engagement with data. One common criticism of ABMs is that they lack rigorous foundations. While I think that this is often unfair (particularly when the foundations are rigorous qualitative theory), it is the case that ABMs are often compared with real data only once they are built, either for validation or calibration. As far as I know, using machine learning to fit agent behavior (as I do here) is still uncommon. Ultimately, I think computational social science will need to combine both approaches. Going forward, I’m hoping to extend the type of work I’ve shown here, using data science techniques to understand agent-level behavior and combining it with qualitative theory to situate that behavior within a larger interactive system.

David was responding to pieces by Duncan Watts and Sean J. Taylor that looked at CSS from the perspective of knowledge discovery and automated content extraction. In contrast, David and I go to a program that is more focused on causal mechanisms and models that use qualitative theory as their lodestar. David (rightly) argues that CSS-ers shouldn’t have to choose — the laboratory quality of agent-based models can be combined with data science techniques to make more realistic and useful models. This is an approach already taken by the “cultural algorithms” method.

Elsewhere, fellow GMU’er Russell Thomas has been debating Cliodynamics theorist Peter Turchin about agent-based modeling of human social evolutionary change. Russell’s argument centers around the need  for robustness checks, counterfactuals, and sensitivity analysis concerning models:

Validation and verification are also crucial for simulations since they are situated in a broader ontological and epistemological context.  The two diagrams below show some of this context.  The first diagram comes from a conference paper called “On the meaning of data” and it focuses only on the bare bones of empirical research, which has some similarity to simulation-based research.  It’s simplistic, of course, but it gets across the main point: many factors besides the “model” and the “data” are involved in shape the final results, especially the crucial role of framing and interpretation. ….To say that a simulated model accurately predicts the explanandum, as Dr. Turchin has done, only covers the three boxes and relations on the far left [referring to a diagram] — (from bottom to top) “Simulation Model”, “Simulation Model Data/Results”, and “System Data/Results”.  It leaves out all the other elements and relations, which you can see are highly relevant to validation and verification. The paper by Sargent goes into these issues in detail.

What do both have in common? Masad and Thomas are both grappling with several dimensions of the “curse of computing.” In the linked post, Artem Kaznatcheev looks at the problem of computer simulations, using automated theorem-proving in mathematics as an example:

For me, the issue is not general surveyability, but internalization. No mathematician fully understands the computational part of the proof, at least no more than a pointy-haired boss understands the task his engineers completed. Although some AI enthusiasts might argue that the computer understands its part of the proof, most mathematicians (or people in general) would be reluctant to admit computers as full participants in the “social, informal, intuitive, organic, human process” (De Millo, Lipton, & Perlisp, 1979; pg. 269) of mathematics. For De Millo, Lipton, & Perlisp (1979), PYTHIAGORA’s verification or the computer assisted part of a proof is simply meaningless; it does not contribute to the community’s understanding of mathematics. This is easiest to see in the odd Goldbach conjecture: what understanding do we gain from the 10^{30} odd numbers that Helfgott’s computer program checked? It teaches us no new mathematics, no new methods, and brings no extra understanding beyond a verification.

In an alternative world without computer proofs, this verification would be absent. On the one hand, this means that alternative Helfgott would only tighten but not resolve the conjecture. On the other hand, the problem would remain open and continue to keep researchers motivated to find completely analytic ways to resolve it. Of course, even in our real world, a few mathematicians will continue looking for a non-computer assisted proof of the weak Goldbach conjecture, just as they continue to do with the four color theorem. However, the social motivation will be lower and progress slower. This is the curse of computing: giving up understanding for an easy verification.

This is part of a theme that the EGT blog crew has explored in the past — the fact that computers (data science or simulations based on qualitative theory) can help us verify without understanding. This is particularly pernicious when we are dealing with systems with many moving parts, systems that are difficult to understand or derive causality from. Kaznatcheev argues that we should foreground constructive analytical representations first before we begin putting them into computers, attempting to first gain a purchase over the object we are attempting to theorize about.

Now that I’ve completed this mini lit review, I’ll give you my take on this difficult problem.

My own view is that, for a discipline that uses “computational” in its title, we seem to be very uninterested in the idea of computation itself and what it means for our research. And I say this both from the perspective of the formal ideas of computation as well as how we use computer programs and technology for our models. Computers are, to us, an instrument that helps us do our research — whether we are discovering patterns about social life with the data-centric social science Watts and Taylor talk about or the modeling that Masad and Thomas engage in. I’m going to focus more on the latter, since it is something I know more about than data science per se.

The Santa Fe-inspired school of CSS uses computer code and programs as a representational language to encompass models of social process. Object-oriented programming, for example, is used because it is thought to be isomorphic with Herbert Simon’s idea of hierarchal complexity. Simon wrote of a “sciences of the artificial” rooted in humanity’s tendency to produce synthetic objects with both inner and outer environments that mimic the adaptation and design of organic life forms. In a classic essay towards the end of the book, Simon wrote about the idea of an epistemology that described a number of real-world systems — a nested and ranked ordering of interacting objects that could be treated as near black boxes. These objects, Simon argued, interacted together to become more than the sum of their parts. Modeling in general is about producing a simplified “map” of some real-world referent system, not the system itself. Few modelers believe that their models *are* the territory. Hence CSS as Masad, Russell, and I know it is about making hierarchally complex systems composed of these near black boxes as computer programs and using the programs as a representational language.

The problem, though, is that it is difficult to understand the distorting effect of the representational language. Phil Arena once tweeted, in response to a story about plants that supposedly mathematically calculated, that while math is a useful way of representing things it’s bonkers to say that plants are literally doing math. Unfortunately this isn’t really a new problem. The history of Simon’s “sciences of the artificial” is one long and sometimes creepy story of humans imputing intentionality and anthropomorphic qualities to non-human entities…..and humans imputing mechanistic and computational qualities from non-human entities or symbolic systems to humans.  In particular, we’ve always been fascinated with automata, from antiquarian curiosities to modern science fiction’s HAL and WOPR.

A large part of computational social science revolves around artificial agents that we instrument for the purpose of science. The idea of “generative social science” is about constructing societies of computational agents that simulate some real-world thing of interest. In essence, we’ve taken the 18th century chess-playing automations and their cousins and slaved them to act out our ideas in the hope we’ll learn something about real human beings and the social aggregates they create. Simon’s extended analogy between naturally produced objects and synthetic ones in terms of things governed by “inner” and “outer” environments is fun but also problematic.

There is a reasonable question embedded here about what this really tells us about the real world, particularly since the goal of computation itself (and artificial intelligence in particular) has always been to migrate the aspects of cognition least representative of human behavior  and cognition to machines. As J.C.R Licklider wrote in the early 60s, computers are meant to tackle what is most difficult and frustrating for us so we can free ourselves up for creative thought and problem formulation. And computers struggle to capture the aspect of human cognition that we barely think about — the “frame problem“:

To most AI researchers, the frame problem is the challenge of representing the effects of action in logic without having to represent explicitly a large number of intuitively obvious non-effects. But to many philosophers, the AI researchers’ frame problem is suggestive of wider epistemological issues. Is it possible, in principle, to limit the scope of the reasoning required to derive the consequences of an action? And, more generally, how do we account for our apparent ability to make decisions on the basis only of what is relevant to an ongoing situation without having explicitly to consider all that is not relevant?

There are three responses to this, all of which have pros and cons.

First, we can double down and argue that programs and code are a suitable language to model (in a stylized manner) what individuals, institutions, and societies engage in every day. Our petri dish of agents are enough like the real thing that we can use them. This is a persuasive argument, but the problem is that we’re still limited in our theory development to what we can represent with machines. We have to account for the frame problem and the curse of computing. Granted, that isn’t exactly a bad thing — the cognitive science community has gotten along quite fine with simulation engines like SOAR and ACT-R that represent cognition in a way that fits with the demands of computer programming and computation. But we have to always keep this in the back of our heads.

The second perspective, which I’ve toyed with, is the idea of accepting that simulated agents, no matter how cognitively realistic or data-primed we can make it, is never going to tell us more than just what we can do with computer algorithms….and that our agents are simply more sophisticated versions of the 18th-19th century automata crowd attractions. This would put a premium on the idea that the theoretical elements of computation itself — not necessarily what we can represent with the models — is the real prize. Like the Platonist view of mathematics as something that exists independently of human agreement, we could say that computation itself is a neutral and objective language to deductively examine formal properties of society. This is something that Artem Kaznetcheev has done quite a bit with his idea of evolution and scientific progress as machine learning. Computation, like formal proofs in game theory, can deduce qualities about society that stand on the basis of mathematical logic. To quote Katnatcheev again:

For over twenty-three hundred years, at least since the publication of Euclid’s Elements, the conjecture and proof of new theorems has been the sine qua non of mathematics. The method of proof is at “the heart of mathematics, the royal road to creating analytical tools and catalyzing growth” (Rav, 1999; pg 6). Proofs are not mere justifications for theorems; they are the foundations and vessels of mathematical knowledge. Contrary to popular conception, proofs are used for more than supporting new results. Proofs are the results, they are the carriers of mathematical methods, technical tricks, and cross-disciplinary connections.

Of course, at its most basic level, a proof convinces us of the validity of a given theorem. The dramatic decisiveness of proofs with respect to theorems is one of the key characteristics that set mathematics apart from other disciplines. A mathematical proof is unique in its ability to reveal invalid conclusions as faulty even to the author of that conclusion. Contrast this with Max Planck’s conception of progress in science:

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

Further, unlike in science, a mathematical conclusion is shown to be faulty by the proofs and derivations of other mathematicians, not by external observations.

I’m personally sympathetic to this idea — with one important caveat. Social aggregates are emergent, probabilistic, and interactive. Mathematics as a language has some important limitations in the way it can represent those qualities, particularly in the difficulty of creating scientific tools that can be used as environments for tinkering and creative thought. Science is often cast either as a process of either hypothesis-testing or deduction from first principle. Science in practice, however, is often messy, creative, and improvisational — and computing, though sometimes a “curse,” has the potential to serve as an aid to science. Finally, how research is represented is also important. Models and theorists are connectors and communicators, and a model that produces an appealing and interactive narrative can serve as a means of connection. This is something that the data science community understands rather intuitively, even if it can unfortunately produces “the one map that explains everything about ___” hackery. Hence no matter what we do, computers and simulation ought to be the instrument of our science.

The third response is to simply say “so what?” and argue that all of this philosophical desiderata I’ve just elucidated is besides the point. Can the model predict? Does it fit with real world data? Is it robust? etc etc. I would admit that it’s hard to argue against this — at the end of the day, that is what journal reviewers and grant-givers care about. But — perhaps due to my pre-CSS background in mostly qualitative research and theory — I think that the logic of representation and the philosophical assumptions we make about the language of science can’t easily be dismissed.  Ultimately, though we are in the business of accounting for variation, issues of understanding and explanation sit at the core of what we do. If models are maps, accuracy isn’t necessarily the sole criterion — a poorly designed map will also mislead those who use it.

I agree with Masad that models must engage data more, with Kaznatcheev that formal properties and analytical correctness is crucial, and with Thomas that a model also does not speak for itself. But I’d also submit that the process of how we deal with the subject of computation — from both a technological perspective (the “curse of computing”) as well as a theoretical one (how we engage with the formal logic of computation) are the defining questions of the discipline.

Purify Thyself, and Share Thine Kombucha

By Graham Peterson

Michael Schulson has a piece over at the Daily Beast called “Whole Foods: America’s Temple of Pseudoscience.”  The only thing wrong with it, is that it doesn’t carry its mighty insights far enough.

Schulson’s basic point is that there is as much evidence to support most of the remedies and diet fads at Whole Foods as there is the idea that the Earth was created a few thousand years ago — and that it’s curious that the American Left gives Whole Foods an anti-science free pass while blasting religious conservatism for its psuedo-science.

I imagine that Schulson was using “temple” figuratively when he called Whole Foods one, but the use is properly literal.  Healthy food fanatics feel a moral imperative to constantly purify themselves, and shame and scold and advise others about lifestyle and diet choices, missioning The Truth.

Health food fanatics feel that they are privy to a great politico-industrial-environmental conspiracy against the population.  And the issue isn’t just economic, political, or environmental — it is above all a moral issue.  Communities concerned about moral impurity and injustice design rituals to correct for and cleanse such impurity and injustice.  Welcome to the strange concatenation of social justice politics and whole wheat bread.

It wouldn’t be such a big problem. as Schulson notes, if people kept their OCD political and spiritual hand washing to themselves.  But every sufficiently popular religion missions its message.

Clean Fooders feel an urgent need to lead their friends and family and the entire nation away from temptation and toward salvation, which involves shaming and reprimanding the diet and lifestyle decisions of those around them in concert with what the latest blog on the Paleo Diet recommends.  Moreover, this moral activism, like moralistic anti-abortion initiatives, turns to government intervention: developing countries for instance are banning genetic technologies that could feed people who need that food the most.

It’s worth trying to understand what logic motivates these behaviors.  The lesson here is deeper than “boohoo I don’t like government interference and people annoying each other.”

The organic food movement started in the 1960s, along with the co-opting of Eastern spiritual traditions, and a neo-Marxian revival, at the hands of back-to-the-land hippies who had a hopeful, and fantastically incorrect vision of history.  They concocted a historical myth with a curiously Judeo-Christian outline.

Once there was a garden of Eden, when we all lived in long houses and the whole village helped take care of the kids, all of our food was local and organic, and everyone spent their free time getting spun on Ayahuasca and connecting with the life force.  Then we ate the forbidden fruit and descended into a world of industrial sin, that is, profit.  But the second coming would not result from organized labor and communism, they would create heaven on earth with transcendental meditation, worker co-operatives, and a return to 15th century agricultural technologies.

Buried in all of these rituals is a theme of intimacy — intimacy with one’s own body, intimacy with one’s food and the neighbors who grew it.  The opposite of intimacy is alienation, and alienation of course comes from egoistic profit seeking.  With egoistic profit seeking comes big anonymous cities, a stranger growing one’s tomatoes, and (gasp!) machines.  Machines don’t milk cows with the dutiful and caressing love that Billy Joe did once on a resentful and freezing December morning, while he worried that his thin grain stores would last the family through the winter.

Highly educated, upper middle class white suburban Americans finally awoke in the 1960s to the reality that they were being transparently exploited by a cabal of agricultural industrialists who had lowered the price of food exponentially, improved food’s quality such that life expectancy had nearly tripled, and freed up incomes for existential consumption.  These forces were working to sully and poison us both biologically and socially.  Sullying and poisoning calls for purification, moral and physical.

There are three great ironies in this movement.  Firstly, the people who live on and spread terrific fear of modern technology and production processes, and who champion a return to rural village life, craft production, and other social and physical technologies of the 15th century — consider themselves not astonishingly conservative — but indeed society’s leading progressives.

Secondly, as Schulson deftly points out: there is buried among such “progressives,” a pseudo- and anti-science bias that constitutes a glaring double standard with evaluations of the ethics of the political Right.  The double standard, like most double standards, leads to an incoherent dehumanizing of formal and informal expressions of the political Right.

And thirdly, the outlet through which they express their simultaneous moral superiority and indignation, is owned and operated by an outspoken libertarian, John Mackey.

Trashing Authority Isn’t Just a Good Time

By Graham Peterson

We love to topple celebrities in America, seemingly only because . . . they’re celebrities.  But it is not just people whose fame derives in their fame.  We’ll rip apart, with gossip and criticism, just about anyone in any setting who is perceived to be at the top of a hierarchy.

I noticed this rather viscerally on Economics Job Market Rumors, where economics graduate students mock and lambast senior and famous economists for their ethics, their work, their personalities, and so on.  I had always thought that only crappy and immature restaurant employees (like me!) talked a lot of shit about the boss.  So online academic behavior looked shocking to me because of the Ideal Type of academics as dignified gentlemen in smoking coats, stewarding the heights of human reason.

Ripping authority is a general phenomena — not just an academic one, nor bar employee one, nor a Hollywood one.  It is also political.  Taking down politicians and their behavior is a large portion of what we do in the news media.  It is local.  We take apart leaders of our churches, and the staff at our children’s school.

We in America (and probably elsewhere) love to savage authority figures, and with naked, screaming abandon.

A friend of mine suggested that it’s because of the false consciousness of social mobility in America.  Since we like to believe in the American Dream of social mobility, but because it doesn’t actually exist in material fact, we pretend, like seven year olds playing games at recess, that mobility exists by dressing down celebrity, fame, and authority in spirit.  It’s just a pageantry and opiate that makes us feel good and keeps us all oppressed.

I suggest not.  There are very real consequences to public relations — indeed there is an entire industry built around it, several in fact if you include marketing and other less explicit forms of public relations.  People lose their jobs.  People don’t get called for movie roles, and stop getting invited to dinner parties.  Simply put — even fractionally rational people would not spend such incredible energy gossiping and tearing down people who they feel are performing authority poorly, if it did not result in actual damage to that person, and actual warnings to others of what is and is not acceptable in such roles.

What is more, I suggest that this is an especially unique part of modernity.  Martin Luther, for instance, was not behaving in a routine manner when nailing grievances to a church door, like laughing at Miley Cyrus on TMZ is now.  Incinerating authority is as routine as taking out the trash now — which is why we take it for granted and think it not remarkable.  It is remarkable.

I suggest that not only does our culture, where informal and public monitoring of authority is completely acceptable and encouraged, topple poor performers, it also maintains the fluidity of social mobility by preserving the informal rights of people to engage in active criticism of the institutions that surround them.  Engaging in this way is a first rung on a (often times admittedly long) ladder to the top — whichever top it is — of the many tops there are in a culturally and organizationally diverse society like ours.  Many times when grievances are bad enough — entirely new organizations form, like Luther’s followers did.

What we get in this bargain is an enormous amount of social fluidity and mobility, both laterally and vertically.  We get new organizations forming all the time.  We get people voting with their mouths and feet.  We get entirely new social roles and expectations.

The task seems to be, then, to figure out how to preserve this largely functional and desirable cultural mechanism, yet reduce the number of its casualties.  Trashing public figures for their weight, ethics, or skin color on the internet, say, in unmitigated witch hunts, seems to be an instance of getting too much of a good thing.

Competition, Not Convergence

By Adam Elkus

I have a lot of thoughts on the Nicholas Kristof piece and the stirring it’s raised in the poli-sci blogosphere, but I’ve expended way too much time writing on the academic-policy divide and relevance in other venues to do more than a quick hit here.

First, an excerpt from a great blog by Tom Pepinsky:

Let me propose that disengagement by academics is not the problem. Rather, standing in the way of greater public engagement is that public intellectuals like Kristof, and policymakers in positions of power, are not interested in the sort of knowledge that real social science produces. They don’t want careful and considered, they want sharp and snappy. Superficial and ill-considered “analysis” in the form of 800 word nuggets is just not what the academic disciplines are designed to produce. That’s a good thing. We should not want to produce “TED talk” style research, even if Kristof finds it interesting.

What Pepinsky fundamentally gets is this: journalists/policy-oriented writers like Kristof and political scientists are in competition. There are a finite number of eyeballs, pageviews, think-tank panels, TV interviews, TED talks, and policymakers to be had for each broadly poli-sci related subject or application area. And you have two groups of people that claim intellectual knowledge and expert status in those areas. Yes, Kristof and political scientists aren’t really competing for the same exact audience, but there is significant overlap. Enough overlap that Kristof himself has been on the receiving end of withering attacks by academics in his own subject area.

I’m not telepathic, so I have no idea what prompted Kristof to write his column. But color me unsurprised that a journalists with no training in statistics, formal methods, research design, or obligation to undergo peer review regard such things as off-putting, irrelevant, and even perhaps threatening. Color me unsurprised as well that Kristof’s idea of what academia should be like is…..a souped-up version of journalism. Kristof sells narratives. And if you think this is all about math, you’re wrong. Public intellectuals like Kristof have more or less equal disregard for history, area studies, and ethnography when they contradict a narrative. I’ve certainly lived the latter reality watching natsec debates in Washington proceed with more or less total indifference to academic military and intelligence history and qualitative research in strategic theory. No one in Kristof’s lane cared about Clausewitz or offerings from the Journal of Military History during the counterinsurgency years, so why would they care about econometrics or game theory?

As someone that straddles a difficult line between the policy world, increasingly the tech world, and different corners of academic arcana I’ve always been sympathetic to the idea that academics should be engaged with the world beyond their journals and conferences. But let’s face it: academics, policy analysts, and journalists that produce knowledge on political subjects are all competing for attention. There’s an overlap in the Venn diagram of respective audiences for each group that controls two critical variables: social status/recognition and money. And if there is one thing that academics, policy analysts, and journalists all have in common it’s that no one produces knowledge solely for the sake of it — nothing happens without money, and knowledge production without appreciative eyeballs is like coffee without caffeine.

So this is really a reason to be skeptical of calls for pluralism in political science voiced by people like Kristof. What Kristof is saying is actually anti-pluralistic. It’s not as much a call for pluralism as much as it is a plea for political scientists to be more like NYT op-ed writers. That’s not an excuse to wallow in jargon or to take an overly scholastic (as opposed to engaged) idea of the discipline. But it is to say that Kristof is your competition, and always will be your competition. He won’t likely be happy if you make your work more accessible, as Politico didn’t exactly welcome the popular and well-presented work of Nate Silver when it conflicted with their model of reporting.

So don’t be more like him — instead beat him, steal the more important and influential slices of his readership, and force him to work harder and be more rigorous. And with the rise of Wonkblog, Nate Silver, Monkey Cage, increased public visibility of social scientists of all methodological stripes (from formal modelers to anthropologists like Sarah Kendzior) as well as the growing public and private sector interest in data-intensive social science, maybe he *should* be worried.

The Worst President of the 20th Century: Part Five

By Seth Studer

In yesterday’s post, I wrote that presidents should not be judged as individuals but as metonyms for a complex of policies, persons, and decisions. The problem with this sensible approach to presidential history is that you can’t really make lists comparing and ranking presidents across decades.

And on President’s Day, that’s no fun.

Given that my ability to talk about the presidency with any credibility is more or less limited to the 20th/21st century, I will confine the scope of my list to the eighteen presidents whose entire tenure took place within those two centuries (i.e., I’m excluding William McKinley, who was assassinated in September 1901, and including George W. Bush). I will also write two lists: one for the greatest presidents since 1902, one list for the worst.

And here’s the real catch/compromise: both lists will include all eighteen presidents.

I will write one list with the disposition of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and one with the disposition of Christopher Hitchens. I will write one list judging the presidents by the mean of their greatest accomplishments and the other by the mean of their failures. The results will be two very different lists. Great presidents will also be terrible. Presidents ranked in the middle of one list will rank high, or low, on the other.

In the interest of brevity, I have attempted (attempted) to summarize their accomplishments and failures in one or two or five sentences (although I’ve allowed myself the option/luxury of separate “foreign” and “domestic” categories). The conversation can continue in the comments, if you like (I’ve written plenty that doesn’t appear here, so fire away!).

I’m posting List #1 today. List #2 is coming soon.

The Greatest Presidents since 1902

1. Lyndon B. Johnson

Domestic: Upon assuming office, Johnson called Martin Luther King Jr. and said, “I’m going to try to be all of your hopes.” In the subsequent two years, Johnson did more for black civil rights than any other U.S. president before or since, including Lincoln. The 1964 Civil Rights Act alone earns him first place.


Foreign: The best we can say about LBJ’s disastrous, oscillating Vietnam policies is that he inherited it from a reckless president and, by 1968, was closing a deal on a genuine ceasefire (a deal that was sabotaged by #4).

2. Dwight D. Eisenhower

Foreign: He led the United States through the most volatile and sensitive years of the Cold War – the most dangerous period of the 20th century – with nary a misstep.

Domestic: Eisenhower consolidated and retained the best elements of the New Deal while encouraging economic growth on an unprecedented scale. If there was any doubt before, Eisenhower made clear that FDR’s reforms were a permanent part of American life. He was arguably our greatest “peacetime” president, if you consider the Cold War “peacetime.”

3. Franklin D. Roosevelt

Domestic: What we call “the New Deal” was a complex of not-always-interrelated policies – some good, some bad – the net impact of which mitigated the worst effects of the Great Depression. Easy to forget: FDR essentially governed as a centrist during a period of social unrest and dangerous extremes, when socialists and fascists alike had loud voices in American streets.

Eisenhower by Rockwell

Foreign: He deliberately kept the United States out of World War II until the last possible moment, and then fully committed all the resources of the U.S. to the war.

4. Richard Nixon

Foreign: Who made your cell phone?

Nixon governed at the precise moment the rest of the world recovered from World War II, when America’s economic standing was most vulnerable. Nixon understood this. He envisioned a “post-America” world when Fareed Zakaria was learning to read, and – 1970s oil crises aside – he succeeded. When Bob Dole eulogized his mentor by declaring that “the second half of the 20th century will be known as the age of Nixon,” he was only wrong in saying “will,” rather than “should.” We’re living in Nixon’s world, a 21st century where the United States – no longer the world’s lone superpower (that lasted like five years) – is nevertheless positioned very, very nicely.

Meanwhile, Nixon and Kissinger made pragmatism cool, shaving the ideological edge off anti-Communist rhetoric in the U.S. and paving the way for critical compromises, important treaties, and the much beloved Reagan-Gorby relationship.

Nixon essentially won the Cold War.

Domestic: Most of his economic reforms reflected his foreign policy (i.e., to ensure the U.S. is economically well-positioned for the next fifty years). His administration accomplished many liberal goals that Democrats had struggled to accomplish (e.g., creation of the EPA), but on more moderate terms.

FDR, on the left.
FDR, on the left.

5. Theodore Roosevelt

Domestic: The iconoclast in me wants to take the cult of TR down a peg (and down several notches on this list). He feels like an overrated president to me. But his progressivism and trust-busting were so impressive and critical given the times, and the precedents they set were so far reaching (for good and ill, but mostly for good), that I can’t place him any lower.

Plus: people who gush over National Parks today are irritating, but people who opposed National Parks back then were more irritating.

Foreign: Whenever a U.S. president brokers the end of a war, it’s a good thing. I confess I find TR’s foreign policy a little confusing. He’s often wrongly blamed/given credit for “American imperialism” or U.S. interventionism, but American adventures overseas date back to Thomas Jefferson at the latest. We forced Japan out of isolation when a guy named Millard Fillmore was president. But TR amplified and clarified the foreign policy of his predecessors, to be sure, and is probably best imagined as a conduit between the quiet, sneakier, “we have half the globe to ourselves” foreign policies of the 19th century, a period when much of the world could be ignored, and the fully-engaged, globalized foreign policies of 20th century administrations.

Also, he had a personality.


6. Woodrow Wilson

Domestic: People forget that the income tax was levied to help offset tariff reform, which would have drastically improved the United States’ position in the global economy, had the nations of Europe not decided that a devastating world war, an unprecedented socialist revolution, and the collapse of four empires was a quicker way to improve everyone’s position in the global economy (or at least level the playing field).

Either way, the United States came out on top. And Wilson’s model of governance endured. If Teddy Roosevelt transferred prestige and power back from the legislative to the executive branch, Wilson molded that power into its current form. With the Federal Reserve, et al, Wilson consolidated the Progressive reforms of the previous two administrations into a new, permanent system of government that, like it or not, produced the most prosperous nation and the most prosperous century in the history of civilization. (One major depression < four wildly unprecedented economic booms.)

Foreign: He tried his hardest.

8 (tie). Ronald Reagan

Foreign: As more documents are declassified, we see how cautious, sensitive, and covertly pragmatic was Reagan’s approach to the Soviet Union…even in his first years as president, when the collapsing Soviet Union’s internal politics were extremely dangerous and volatile. Reagan’s anti-Communism extended only to small, inconsequential nations. When the time came to end the Cold War, he did virtually everything right. Even his intransigence served a purpose, providing Gorbachev leverage against the Soviet equivalents of, well, Ronald Reagan.

Domestic: People made money.

Wilson, pleased after winning the H.P. Lovecraft Lookalike contest.
Wilson, pleased after winning the H.P. Lovecraft Lookalike contest.

8 (tie). Bill Clinton

Domestic: Like Wilson after TR/Taft or Eisenhower after FDR/Truman, Clinton consolidated and blunted major reforms implemented by the opposite party. By the end of his two terms, any serious opposition to neoliberalism in his own party was long dead. He raised taxes during a period of unprecedented economic growth, eventually generating the surplus that Republicans were always talking about (like Nixon: “what they put forward, I put through”). On almost everything but income taxes, Clinton was more Reagan than Reagan. The so-called “Reagan Revolution” ought to be renamed the “Reagan-Clinton Revolution.”

Foreign: By the time he took office, it was too late to reverse the political collapse of post-Soviet states/satellites. He responded to terrorist attacks as violations of international law, worthy of a military response but not full-on all-in total warfare. Y’know, the good old days.

9. Harry Truman

Domestic: Truman put the civil rights of black Americans on the Democratic agenda, risking his re-nomination over an unpopular plank that would lead to the 1964 Civil Rights bill. People give JFK credit on Civil Rights, when he was essentially the weakest link in a chain between Truman, Eisenhower, and LBJ.

Truman successfully transitioned the U.S. economy from a war to a peacetime economy, leading the nation through the 1946 recession and fears that the United States would share the British postwar experience (where recession persisted well into the 1950s).

Do you have to ask? Have you seen that face?
Do you have to ask? Have you seen that face?

Foreign: Truman’s is the hardest foreign policy to assess. He ended the war with Japan and helped rebuild what would become one of the world’s most successful democracies. He fired a psychotically dangerous and dangerously popular general, at great political risk.

The atom bomb was an extension of Roosevelt’s Japanese war policies; Roosevelt didn’t build the bombs not to be used. In my mind, there’s no exchange rate on human life. Death by an atom bomb is no more evil than death by firebombing (and firebombing was far more destructive), so I don’t hold Truman in special contempt merely because he used atomic weapons. (Hindsight helps: he apparently set no precedent for U.S. or Soviet leaders, and we survived the Cold War without a nuclear exchange. If Truman had pulled the trigger on an apocalyptic war, perhaps I’d assess Hiroshima differently.)

Did Truman avert war with the Soviet Union or a Soviet invasion of western Europe? Probably not. The U.S.S.R. was too weak to do anything but heave threateningly at its borders. Were the policies that framed what we’d eventually call “the Cold War” prudent and successful? Today I wish we’d favored engagement over containment; but at the time, containment was viewed as an alternative to direct conflict. Is it a victory when you save Berlin but lose half of Germany? I don’t know. Truman essentially created Israel, a fact that should inspire pride but inspires ambivalence in many. Even his greatest achievements in foreign policy make you wince from time to time.

10. William Howard Taft

Domestic: Scaled back TR’s reforms without abandoning the Progressive project. He made Progressive reforms more palatable to the business community, who by 1909 felt alienated and antagonized, and would have mobilized against further executive interference and reversed TR’s best reforms had Taft not essentially held out an olive branch (a branch that cost him a second term).

Remember when conservatives impeached this guy?
Remember when conservatives impeached this guy?

11. Warren G. Harding

Domestic: an underrated president. Elected to reform the excesses of the Progressive era, which he began to do…and his reforms would have been more moderate than Coolidge’s excessive inaction. If Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover had gone to President Harding, rather than to President Coolidge, to warn of recklessness on Wall Street, Harding might have listened. Harding’s famous scandals are overplayed and meaningless.

12. Herbert Hoover

Domestic: He did what he could. He intervened in the economy as the Depression worsened. Most of his stimulus policies were adopted by FDR and incorporated into New Deal programs. If FDR had been elected president in 1928, he would have lost in 1932, too.

13. George H.W. Bush

Domestic: Americans with Disabilities Act. Try getting around New York City in a wheelchair in the 1970s.

Foreign: Asserted strong civilian leadership over the military (military historian Thomas E. Ricks calls Dick Cheney the greatest secretary of defense in the modern era for this reason). Demonstrated how to fight a short, quick, effective war after the Cold War.


14. John F. Kennedy

Foreign: he taunted Khrushchev over and over, and when Khrushchev responded by installing nuclear missiles in Cuba, he didn’t overreact. He got scared, he calmed down, and he behaved soberly at a very, very critical moment. I give him credit for that.

15. George W. Bush

Domestic: Made earnest attempts to reform Social Security, education, and a few other things.

Foreign: Excellent work in Africa. Convinced recalcitrant extremists in the Republican party to chill out about AIDS, other social issues.

16. Calvin Coolidge

Domestic: People made money.

Time's headline does its best to keep Vietnam from unifying
Time’s headline does its best to keep Vietnam from unifying

17. Gerald Ford

Domestic: Inspired John Updike to write, “What was unthinkable under Eisenhower and racy under Kennedy had become, under Ford, almost compulsory. … [W]as there ever a Ford Administration? Evidence for its existence seems to be scanty.”

18. Jimmy Carter

Foreign: One rarely wants to praise a president for instigating a war, but rumors of the Carter administration’s hand in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – that they exacerbated conditions in Afghanistan and prompted the flailing Soviet government to make a rash and ultimately fatal decision, to “give Russia their Vietnam” – if true, well…it’s the sort of thing that, if Reagan had done it, Republicans would never stop celebrating.

And although Carter deserved some credit for the Camp David Accords, most of the credit and all of the risk belonged to Sadat.

Next time: the Worst Presidents since 1902.