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Against Strategery
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Against Strategery

Voters shouldn’t try to outsmart themselves.

Former President Donald Trump disembarks his plane in Aberdeen, Soctland, on May 1, 2023. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Writing in the New York Times, Gail Collins (yes, again, for my sins) takes the bipartisan group No Labels to task, arguing that it could help to elect Donald Trump president, if Trump is the Republican nominee and No Labels runs a centrist alternative. “Repulsed by Biden vs. Trump? Tough.” So reads the hectoring headline. 

As I have been arguing for some time, one of the misfortunes that plagues our ailing republic is an epidemic of cleverness. It is a particularly narrow kind of cleverness—the kind that lawyers and op-ed columnists have—that has its place (thank goodness!) but that also can be mistaken for original insight or hardheaded analysis. It is a little more than glibness and a little less than expertise. 

That cleverness manifests itself in different ways, one of which is an excessive emphasis on what George W. Bush never actually called strategery. (Strategery was Will Ferrell, not George W. Bush; “I can see Russia from my house!” was Tina Fey, not Sarah Palin. Gerald Ford wasn’t actually clumsy. George H.W. Bush didn’t actually talk like Mr. Rogers trying to be John Wayne, as Dana Carvey described the formula for his impersonation. Etc.) What Collins is engaged in is parlor strategery. And she isn’t the only one: There are many people who are worried that No Labels could unintentionally help Donald Trump, including some people who are generally sympathetic to No Labels and its goals. Some people even whisper darkly that No Labels is some kind of Trumpist conspiracy.

That is, of course, preposterous. No Labels was founded in 2010 largely by the decided non-Trumpy troika of Nancy Jacobson (a Democratic fundraiser), Michael Bloomberg, and Andrew Tisch, co-chairman of the Loews Corporation. I have my doubts about No Labels’ priorities and its political model, but the idea that Larry Hogan, Joe Lieberman, and Benjamin Chavis are conspiring to further the interests of Donald Trump is moonshine. 

I do suspect that No Labels has the same problem that the Forward Party has contemplated: You can call yourself bipartisan, but you can nominate only one person for president, and that person, however moderate or centrist, is almost certainly going to have a red shadow or a blue one. Forward plans to handle that in the near term by not competing in presidential races, concentrating instead on legislative elections. But you cannot kick that can down the road forever, and the fact is that the United States has two major political parties because it has two major political tribes—not the other way around.

Frank Rich of the Times spoke for a familiar strain of pre-Trump populism in 2010 when he wrote a column (“The Bipartisanship Racket”) savaging No Labels for its management-consultant blandness and for its close relationship to a number of wealthy—and undisclosed—donors. 

This is exactly the kind of revolving-door synergy between corporate power and governance that turns off Americans left, right and, yes, center. Oblivious to this taint, No Labels named a few fat-cat donors who have ponied up $1million-plus. But like those shadowy outside groups invented by Karl Rove and his cronies for the 2010 campaign, No Labels has registered as a 501 (c) (4) and is not legally bound to release information about its contributors. What America needs is not another political organization with a toothless agenda and less-than-transparent finances. 

Well. The agendas have plenty of teeth these days, and we have discovered that replacing fat-cat money with oodles of small-dollar donations driven by cable-news hysterics and social-media outrage porn was not a gigantic improvement. In fact, the domination of small money has led to more polarization, more hysteria, less integrity, and less thoughtfulness in our politics. The problem with democracy is, and always has been, the demos. No Labels may have a distinct feeling of soulless technocracy about it, but the more voters you meet, the better soulless technocracy sounds. 

In any case: Elections are unpredictable. Politics is a lot more like fashion than it is like philosophy or chess, and it moves in its own way under its own steam for its own reasons. 

People sometimes get confused about what it is opinion journalists are supposed to be doing (opinion journalists themselves are the worst offenders), which leads to a species of what Jonah Goldberg calls “popular front” politico-media malpractice. Some years ago, I was at a National Review event in Southern California (and there is no conservative as lonely and as bitter as the SoCal conservative) when one of the increasingly restive guests demanded of me: “What are you doing to ensure that Republicans win in the next election?” To which I answered, “Nothing.” Because I didn’t, and don’t, care about Republican electoral success per se. But they seemed to think that was my job and bristled when I explained that it wasn’t. According to that school of thought—which is regnant at Fox News and too many other right-leaning media outlets—one must not write or say x, even if x is both important and true, unless x helps our team or hurts the other team. The idea of a team, in this sense, is at the heart of the problem.

That isn’t an exclusively conservative phenomenon, of course, and conservatives of my stripe tend to get it from both sides: Write that Donald Trump is unfit to be president of the United States—which he is—and you are helping the left, which needs must result in a chorus of rightist angst and wailing; write that Joe Biden is unfit to be president of the United States—which he is—and you are a crypto-Trumpist secretly doing the bidding of right-wing-billionaire paymasters. (Having had the career I have had, I know a few right-wing billionaires and multihectomillionaires, and I can’t think of any who actually support Donald Trump.) People tell you a great deal about themselves in the accusations they throw at you, and, apparently, a great number of people who take the time to respond to my work find it impossible to imagine that I would—or that they would, in my place—simply write that which I think to be true. 

But writing what you actually think and believe to be true is what journalists, including opinion journalists, owe their readers. Everything else is propaganda or campaign work. There (usually) isn’t anything dishonorable about campaign work, but don’t pretend that you’re doing something else. 

That holds true for journalists, including opinion journalists; it should hold true even for journalists of the television-pundit variety. It doesn’t, of course. Sean Hannity, back in the good old days when he used to get just real lively on Twitter after the cocktail hour, once accused National Review of pretending to support Ted Cruz as part of some kind of complicated cockamamie scheme to secure the 2016 nomination for Jeb Bush. This was, Hannity being Hannity, stupid and dishonest. Cruz back then was still pretty close to National Review politically, and he also had longstanding personal relationships with several senior figures at the magazine. But Hannity never has to worry about saying what he thinks, because he does not think—he need only say what he thinks it is his audience wants to hear. Tucker Carlson was guilty of much the same thing, as is the useless lineup of empty-headed non-entities over at MSNBC and the “Walls Are Closing in on Trump!” gang elsewhere in the progressive media. 

What should hold true for journalists and pundits should hold true for voters, too. If you think Robert Kennedy Jr. is the best man for the job—the crackpot we need, not the lunatic we deserve!—then, by all means, vote for that crackpot. (It is remarkable that between vaccine-kook Robert Kennedy and crystal-worshiping human tarot card Marianne “No Relation” Williamson, nearly 1 in 3 voters in the “Party of Science!” currently say they would prefer a nuthouse candidate rather than Joe Biden in 2024.) We live in a very large country that allows almost anybody to vote, and, as a mathematical matter, your vote is very unlikely to change the outcome of any major race, and it is unlikely to have any effect at all other than as an act of communication. So say what you think—you can afford to, even if Sean Hannity can’t. 

Would a No Labels candidate draw more votes from Biden or Trump? Assuming that the nominees are Biden and Trump—and I do not think that will be the matchup and would not be entirely surprised (or even a little bit displeased) if neither man was his party’s nominee—it is impossible to say. My read is that there is a greater share of Republicans who do not want to vote for Trump than of Democrats who do not want to vote for Biden when the choice actually is put to them, but there is no way to really know that—especially when we don’t even know what the hypothetical No Labels ticket would be or what third-party alternatives are going to look like. I would have thought that the Libertarian Party ticket in 2016—comprising two reasonable and moderate Republican governors—would have done better than it did, given that the major parties had nominated chlamydia and syphilis. In reality, we don’t even really know that Ross Perot’s independent campaign in 1992 cost George Bush his reelection, though this has come to be treated as a self-evident truth. 

Enough with the strategery. You probably aren’t that clever. I don’t think I am. And, even if you are, cleverness is overrated. 

And Furthermore … 

Peter Thiel is pretty clever. But being really good at one thing doesn’t mean that you can transfer your skills and talents to anything else you choose. Democracy means that the game is open to everybody—it doesn’t mean that everybody is good at it. 

Charlie Sykes, leaning on that Casablanca cliché that everybody needs to give a rest for a generation, writes: 

For years, these donors funded candidates who rushed to embrace every meme and narrative of the culture war: from transgender bathroom etiquette and pronouns to variously nebulous and nonsensical attacks on “wokeness.” They backed candidates who publicly pledged to outlaw abortion, and supported Trumpists and Trump-like candidates who had played on racial distrust and gender anxieties.

For years, they nursed baby alligators and are now surprised to find out those baby reptiles have grown up — and are on the loose.

And Peter Thiel is apparently shocked, shocked, that those many-toothed monsters may be coming for him.

I would not dream of speaking for Peter Thiel, but it seems to me that he might be learning a lesson that Michael Bloomberg hasn’t: In spite of everything you have heard, it is not money from big-money backers that makes or breaks a candidate or a political movement. Small money is, if anything, more corrupting and more distorting. 

Big money doesn’t guarantee big results. Michael Bloomberg has poured mind-blowing sums of money into daft gun-control efforts and other pet enthusiasms, to almost no effect. Peter Thiel backed some candidates who mostly turned out to be not very good at this politics thing. Other than the disappointingly plastic J.D. Vance—whose profile-in-courage motto seems to be: “Tell me what kind of candidate you want, and I will pretend to be that kind of candidate!”—Thiel has approximately squat to show for his millions in political money out the door. He is not the first successful businessman to discover that the skills that make you successful in business do not necessarily make you successful in politics—or translate into success in governance, once the election is over. 

Ask Mitt Romney, the son of a millionaire business executive turned governor turned failed presidential candidate who grew up to be a millionaire business executive turned governor turned failed presidential candidate (three cheers for American meritocracy!) how easy it is to win the big one. Ask vacuous tech bro Blake Masters how easy it is to win one of the smaller ones. 

Do Read

I met a year ago with Illia Samoilenko, an officer in the Azov Brigade, which for three months kept the Ukrainian city of Mariupol from falling into Russian hands. We were buried 50 yards below ground, speaking in a maze of galleries that were once atomic shelters under Azovstal’s old steel mill. Ammunition and rations were running low. The cold rooms where they kept the dead had lost power. The severely wounded moaned in silence, awaiting the final assault. 

In Vladimir Putin’s delirious telling, their persecution was normal and just. He claimed the brigade was filled with neo-Nazis whose termination would liberate Ukraine from its worst elements. That was one of the pretexts for Russia’s invasion. In truth, these men took inspiration from—and modeled the bravery of—one of Judaism’s most legendary battles.

Mr. Samoilenko told me that neither he nor his comrades harbored the slightest doubt that they would die, but they believed it was better to die standing than to live on their knees. If their deaths could slow the advance of Russian troops, he added, they wouldn’t have been in vain. 

In this desperate and heroic resistance, I heard the echo of Europe’s past: the siege of Troy, Leonidas the Spartan defying the powerful Persian army, the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in the time of Charlemagne, Madrid in 1936, the Warsaw Ghetto and more.

But Mr. Samoilenko had another image in mind: first-century Masada, where in the Judean desert Roman legions besieged hundreds of Jewish soldiers entrenched behind the high walls of a limestone fortress, opposing the occupier with a magnificent resistance that remains part of the annals of the Jewish people.

Economics for English Majors

Have you ever noticed that the “Pro” section of the Wall Street Journal has an entire section on bankruptcy

Bankruptcy is a big business. (Just how big a business I learned a decade or so ago when I was invited to speak at the annual conference of the American Bankruptcy Association. The crowd that showed up for my talk was very, very large, and I was surprised—until I learned that the speaker after me was Jay Leno.) It is also an interesting and complicated field. 

Ideology, narrowly understood, gives us “right” and “wrong” answers to policy questions. “I support free markets and property rights, and, therefore, I endorse policy x,” or “I think we should always adopt the policy that is best for the working class,” or, “We shouldn’t have a free-market health-care system because health care is a right.” (That last one is a dumb ideology, but there are lots of those.) The thing is, most of the really big and important stuff in political life in the real world isn’t limited or defined by ideology, and a lot of really good policies don’t produce ideologically satisfying results. 

If you are a certain kind of to-the-wall libertarian, you might think we don’t really need bankruptcy law at all: If you have a legal debt of $1 owed to Ralph, then you owe that $1 until you have paid it or until Ralph releases you from your obligation. I know libertarians who argue that there is no such thing as a negative externality, only insufficiently defined property rights—which I suppose I might get, as a theoretical matter, but it doesn’t tell you much about what kind of environmental standards you should have for gas-station operators or nuclear power plants. I am in many ways instinctively hostile to regulations—I am still pretty much a “Leave people alone!” kind of guy—but a really well-crafted law or regulation is something that I have learned to admire. We have so many bad ones that a good one is like finding a pearl in an oyster at a restaurant. 

(I did that, once, when I was a little kid—it wasn’t at a Denny’s but it was at something like a Denny’s. I don’t particularly remember having a thing for fried oysters, and especially fried oysters ordered at a cheap restaurant in Lubbock, Texas, in the 1970s, which is right up there with day-old gas-station sushi when it comes to bad culinary choices. The details are a little faded.) 

Our building codes, for example, can be both heavy-handed but also are a kind of libertarian success story, in that they are privately generated by volunteer committees of specialists who know a great deal about things like how to waterproof the underground parking garage in an apartment building or why adding extra insulation can cause a roof to rot, and these bubble up into the model building codes that municipalities and other jurisdictions can adopt, modify, or reject as they see fit. The results aren’t always great compared to the best-case scenario we could imagine, but they are really good compared to Chicago in 1871 or, unhappily, Turkey today. 

Our bankruptcy law and procedures attempt to balance important competing interests: We want people to make good on their debts, but we don’t want people’s lives forever ruined by financial misfortune, and we want people to take economic risks—that is where entrepreneurship comes from, and entrepreneurship is really the great driver of American economic growth and general prosperity. (It is a great misfortune that George W. Bush’s “ownership society” ideas got derailed, along with much else, by those jihadist nutters. His idea of making U.S. economic prosperity more widely shared in the only really meaningful way—by making the actual ownership of business equity more widespread by encouraging more investment by ordinary people—wasn’t exactly original, but few of the very best ideas are.) Ideology as such won’t give you much guidance there, while white-hats/black-hats thinking will lead you toward policies that are overly generous to one’s allies and punitive toward one’s rivals, throwing off the balance that is essential to good policy in such realms. Big, sweeping changes to policies of this sort should always be avoided. That doesn’t mean that there can be no change, but, where there is change, it should be very carefully considered and modest in its scope—for example, the recent changes to how student loans are treated in bankruptcy seem to me to have been reasonably carefully thought out. 

I have been thinking some about Robert Higgs’ “regime uncertainty”—meaning a situation in which the status of property rights has become unstable or ambiguous. Changes in bankruptcy law are changes in property rights in that they call into question whether a creditor has the right to demand full repayment in a certain situation. Regime uncertainty is expensive and disruptive: A sophisticated modern economy such as ours is driven by investment, and it is difficult to make intelligent, long-term investments when the legal status of one’s property is in doubt. Violating the property rights of one class of people—or simply putting them into doubt—on behalf of another class of people is a common theme of advocates of so-called social justice, who typically argue that the rights of the wealthy may be abridged because the wealthy can afford it. But that ignores (or misunderstands) how prosperity actually is shared—and increased—in a society such as ours. Just as businesses pass on taxes and regulatory expenses to their customers (or their employees, or their vendors, or their other business partners, etc.) meaning that we all end up paying taxes together under a distribution that is never what the policymakers intended, we also all enjoy the fruits of investment—and profit—together. Not equally, by any means, and not in a way that satisfies the advocates of so-called social justice. But, shareholders or not, Americans as a whole are radically better off because Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, etc., were launched in the United States and remained rooted here, and because their profits flow back largely to Americans. Healthy and stable banks, profitable firms, investment, and robust markets are good for everybody. 

Bankruptcy law is an important little piece of that ecosystem that most of us rarely think about. We live, rhetorically, as though we were in a 19th-century novel, something like Vanity Fair, in which “bankruptcy” is a synonym for “failure.” Some bankruptcies are the result of incompetence—cf., Trump, Donald J., sorry business history of—but many are the result of an entrepreneurial effort that simply didn’t work out and that needs to be unwound in an orderly way that will let the affected capital be rerouted to more productive uses. 

A good body of law, especially a technical and boring one, is worth defending, and worth cherishing. 

Words About Words

The Economist has a capable politics correspondent with a name that looks pretty posh on paper—“Alexandra Suich Bass”—but that sounds, at least as pronounced on the Economist podcast, like “Alexandra Sewage Bass.” I hope she went to elementary school with persons of a more refined sort than I am. 

That “sewage bass” made me think of Baltimore’s famous “lake trout,” which is not a trout and does not come from a lake. The Economist report I was listening to was about Florida politics, and if anything will give the Baltimore lake trout a real challenge, it must be the Tallahassee sewage bass. My reading suggests that the name Suich (possibly derived from the Hungarian Szucz) is really pronounced with one syllable rather than two (close to suits or Sutch, as in Screaming Lord Sutch), but the division of syllables is not always unambiguous among English speakers: Some people pronounce chocolate with two syllables, some with three, some with a kind of half-swallowed runt syllable between the two full syllables. Realize has two syllables for some English speakers and three for others. 

Names that form homophones or near-homophones sometimes produce funny results (I’ll bet every lawyer named Sue gets tired of the aptronym jokes) particularly when the homophones straddle languages (welcome to the Cao Dung Day Spa!), although the famous Vietnamese name “Bích Phúc Đạt” apparently is a hoax and not a real name at all. 

Because people move around, names move around, and sometimes end up in a linguistic context that makes them funny. 

(The old story about the Chevy Nova is not true—it sold well in Spanish-speaking countries, and nobody thought the name was no va, “doesn’t move.”)

Baltimore’s lake trout, which is actually a bottom-feeding ocean fish, the silver hake, is a name that follows in a long and proud tradition of making up more palatable-sounding names for fish. (Baltimore loves its bottom-feeders.) The orange roughy, once ubiquitous on fancy(ish) restaurant menus, previously was known as the slimehead. King mackerel was hogfish, and, while it is unclear how widely the name was used, the perfectly respectable sea urchin formerly was a whore’s egg

Names get changed for marketing reasons all the time. As I may have mentioned, I have a hunting rifle chambered in the .275 Rigby cartridge, which was generally known as the 7mm Mauser until the Second Boer War, during which a lot of Englishmen were shot with 7mm rounds and nobody was in the mood to hear the name “Mauser” for a generation or two. (I’ve never seen a box of ammunition marked “.275 Rigby,” and, apparently, neither has anybody else: It’s always been 7mm Mauser or 7x57mm. The “Rigby” bit apparently stuck to the .275 bore not because Rigby used it but simply because Rigby is a fancy company with which less-fancy makers wished to associate their products. That’s why Miller calls itself the “champagne of beers,” though not in Europe.) Happens all the time: When Toyota decided it needed to up its U.S. margins a little bit, the already-expensive Toyota Land Cruiser became an even more expensive Lexus SUV. Roy Harold Scherer Jr. became “Rock Hudson,” primal-scream therapy became “national conservatism,” etc. 

In other wordiness … 

By reader request: Reticent means disinclined to speak; it does not mean hesitant or cautious or reluctant. “He was reticent to take action on the proposal” is a nonsensical thing to say, and you shouldn’t talk nonsense if you can avoid it. Merriam Webster may tell you otherwise, but you should ignore them on this one. The usual guidance applies: Different words for different things. 


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In Closing

Quick question for my progressive friends: Are you all still in favor of promptly reinstating felons’ voting rights? Because I am still against it.

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.