UPDATE: Make sure to read the comments posted below from Stanley, who claims I’ve misunderstood the thesis of this essay. His comments are entirely reasonable. In re-reading his essay after seeing his clarifying comments, the original essay comes across to me as more polemical than he intended.
Stanley provides a nice summary of what he’s doing here:
Here is the structure of the essay. Paragraphs 2 and 3 are about *what is to be explained*. What is to be explained are (a) why the policy preferences of elites are generally what are addressed by congress and the major parties (see not only Gilens and Page, also Lessig) and (b) the *rhetoric and propaganda used by politicians when they run for office* – this is what paragraph 3 is about. Here, in paragraph 3, I give three examples; Rick Snyder’s use of managerial vocabulary to justify the emergency manager laws, and Clinton’s policy wonkery, and Trump’s deal making lingo (I also, in previous versions, discussed the fact that we have ‘royal families’ like the Clintons and Bushes). Paragraph 4 says ‘why is there so little reaction to these anti-democratic features of our political culture?’ One reaction is that it’s all about power; citizens seethe against it, but plutocrats have the power. The essay argues that ideology and propaganda have traditionally some role as well. I begin the argument by presenting an example. The example is not supposed to be about democratic vocabulary. It is rather just supposed to be an example that demonstrates *how ideology can invert political vocabulary*; I don’t consider the vocabulary of law and order to be democratic vocabulary and was presupposing that as obvious (probably a mistake as I now see, as it led to misunderstanding). The example I give, at length, of how ideology can invert the meaning of political vocabulary has to do with mass incarceration. The vocabulary of “law and order” was applied through the filter of anti-Black racism, and what resulted was a misapplication of this vocabulary. It’s inconsistent with law and order to differentially apply it to heroin problems among Blacks and whites. In this entire discussion, democratic vocabulary *isn’t at issue at all*. “Law and order* is not democratic vocabulary, it’s vocabulary shared by many political systems and not specific to democracy. Paragraph 8 is where I turn to the specific issues I set up in paragraphs 2 and 3 (that’s why paragraph 8 begins with “But what is the flawed ideology masking the misapplication of democratic ideals?” – in other words, this is a topic I begin addressing in paragraph 8 and not before; hence, nothing in the discussion of mass incarceration involves this). I use free market ideology to explain distortions in our political culture. The main examples are things like “politicians targeting government rather than business as the main ways of restricting freedom”, “running for office like a CEO”, and defending education systems as efficient systems for producing job skills. Then I end up saying that in this election, we see I think citizens not being sucked in by that vocabulary, that they are turning against “free” trade agreements and the like, and we are now seeing a strong broad based reaction to free market policies. Is that more clear? In other words, there is hardly any disagreement between me and Brennan on the points he makes against this essay. Sorry for the unclarity in writing that led to these confusion
At Aeon.co, Jason Stanley published an essay called “How Free Market Ideology Corrupts the Language of Democracy.” This essay continues themes from Stanley’s recent book How Propaganda Works.
There’s a great deal wrong with Stanley’s essay. Here I’ll focus on just two problems, one minor, one major.
The minor flaw: Stanley begins:
Citizens of the United States are quite taken with the vocabulary of liberal democracy, with words such as ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, which conjure key democratic values and distance the nation from the Old World taint of oligarchy and aristocracy. It is much less clear, however, that Americans are guided by democratic ideals. Or that ideology and propaganda play a crucial role in concealing the large gap between rhetoric and reality.
In truth, the Old World systems have proved extremely difficult to shrug off. In their 2014 paper, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page argue that, as in an oligarchy, ordinary US citizens have no ‘substantial power over policy decisions [and] little or no independent influence on policy at all’.
Stanley should be careful with hanging his hat on this one study. The paper is quite controversial among political scientists, and there are a number of powerful critiques of it from equally prominent authors. See the Vox article here for a review of the controversy. Personally, I suspect Gilens’s earlier work, which makes less dramatic claims, is correct. But if, as Gilens thinks, elites have extra influence, that’s probably a good thing, as I briefly explain here and argue at greater length here. (Gilens himself appears to a bit torn about this. He wants to be a small d democrat, but at the same time, he thinks that elite policy preferences are superior to the policy preferences of average and low-income voters.)
The major/fatal flaw: Here’s Stanley again:
Voters concerned about government – as opposed to corporate – constraints on freedom are under the grip of what I will call a free market ideology. According to that ideology, the world of capital is by its nature free. All other substantial freedoms, including political freedom and personal freedom, are made possible by the freedom of markets.
Stanley goes on to blame this free market ideology for things like the War on Drugs, mass incarceration, and other bad stuff. (Wait, aren’t free market ideologues against the war on drugs and against mass incarceration?) One little problem is he doesn’t provide a plausible causal mechanism for how free market ideology leads to these things, either in the essay or in his book.
But the fatal flaw is that hardly any American voters accept a free market ideology. On the contrary, a large body of empirical work shows that voters are, well, mercantilists. They don’t favor free markets. They favor protectionism, significant government regulation of the economy, strong welfare programs, restrictions on immigration, and the like. See, e.g., here, here, and again here. Or take a look at the General Social Survey, and note that Americans believe free trade robs them of jobs. While economists think immigration is awesome, Americans believe free immigration robs them of jobs, and that immigration does not fuel economic growth. While economists think import quotas suck, American favor them. Most American voters believe industrial pollution is dangerous, and they tend to trust the government when it talks about causes of pollution. Most believe international bodies should have the right to control and enforce environmental regulations. They’re slightly miffed about economic inequality, and they think we should increase taxes on the rich. It does look, at least, like Americans tend to think the economy is over regulated right now, but that doesn’t mean they think we should have a free market. (NB: If you click on the links to the GSS above, you’ll get an error page. But if you right-click, copy the link, and then paste it, it will bring you to the survey result.)
The irony is that the stuff Stanley complains about–the war on drugs, mass incarceration, etc.–are things that are popular with voters because they aren’t free market ideologues. If only they were! These kinds of policies are in fact popular with the median voter (or, rather, were popular until recently). Yet one thing we know is that if voters were better informed than they in fact are, they would simultaneously be 1) more in favor of free trade, 2) less supportive of mass incarceration and more in favor of progressive solutions to crime, and 3) less in favor of the war on drugs.