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The null hypothesis

By Michael J. Smith on Thursday August 31, 2006 09:24 PM

An earlier exchange in comments got me thinking. If I can recycle other people's comments maybe it's OK to recycle my own.

When I argue with Democrats, sooner or later it comes down to something like this: the Democrat, with the air of a man producing an ace from his sleeve, triumphantly demands, "Surely you don't believe that Gore would have gone to war with Iraq?"

The curious thing about this argument, I find, is that the burden of proof seems to lie in the wrong place. It's up to me to prove that the Democrats "would not" have been different; it's not up to my interlocutor to prove that they "would have" been different.

In a case like this you have to ask yourself, what's the null hypothesis? Because that's the epistemologically privileged one -- the one that doesn't carry the burden of proof.

I claim, of course, that the "no difference" hypothesis is the null hypothesis. For this claim a pretty good case is easy to make, historically and structurally.

From the structural point of view, both parties are donor-driven; they will follow the money, and sell themselves to the money-men as being the more likely to deliver what the money-men want. Their RFP responses will be slightly different, like two soft-drink startups vying for venture capital. They will emphasize slightly different demographics and propose slightly different ad campaigns, but such differences are not even skin-deep.

Historically, the record speaks for itself. Democrats got us into Vietnam and kept us there; a Republican finally got us out. Clinton's foreign record is dripping with gore (and dripping, with Gore). Even Jimmy Carter indulged in some adventurism -- and, if Zbigniew Brzezinski is to be believed, deliberately helped upset the applecart in Afghanistan, with results that we all know too well.

So here's what I always say to Mr. Democrat: No, no, other way round. Give me a good reason -- not just a hunch, or a feeling, or a rhetorical question -- why the Democrats "would" do it any different. I personally don't know whether they would have or they wouldn't have; "what if" questions are notoriously unanswerable. But what, exactly, is the source of your confidence, Brother Donk, that you know the answer?

Now maybe this seems like asking a lot. And it is. But it's no more than asking Brother Donk to show his cards. He, after all, is the one claiming that he knows what "would have" -- or rather, what "would not have" happened.

Here's what it comes down to, in that existential crisis we all face when we find ourselves in a voting booth. Do you share my Democratic friend's faith conviction that this time, it will all be different? Or don't you? If you do, well God bless you, your course is clear. But if you don't...?

If you don't, then you have some troubling questions to ponder. One of them could be stated this way: if I pull that lever for the donk -- if I make that leap of faith, in spite of all the structural and historical evidence -- what will be the consequences? Well, the donk might -- might! -- possibly be not quite so bad as the Republican. But on the other hand, I haven't just voted for a maybe-better -- I've also voted for an institution, or rather, I've voted for several institutions simultaneously. One of them is the Democratic party, an institution with a multigenerational record of selling out its most devoted supporters. Another is the "two-party" system, an institition which, by this time, we surely all know is really a one-party system with two factions. And, as far as I can tell from reading the papers, this institution is deeply committed to empire, to cutting my wages, to enriching my boss's boss' boss, and to sending my kids to die for oil, or Israel, or nothing at all.

We all have to make these decisions for ourselves. If, as Dirty Harry says, you feel lucky -- well, then, you will act on your belief, and get screwed again, or not, as it turns out.

But if you don't share my Democratic friend's faith -- then you might want to consider doing something different. Because if my friend's faith is misplaced, your vote isn't just wasted -- it's a contribution, however small, to more badness -- or, putting it a little differently, to greater evil.

Comments (15)


Congratulations! That's a very clear statement. I take it I am the Democratic friend. If so, you should know my voting is all over the place. I worked for Kucinich in 2004. I've voted for Peace and Freedom in California, and Eldridge Cleaver. I also raised money for the Black Panthers a long time ago, and did vote for McGovern -- an actual anti-war Democrat. I would like to vote for the Greens, but they dont seem to have it together where I am.

Political action has many levels -- on the national level, I agree with you -- a plague on both their houses. On the local level, trying to get a county wide living wage, or stop the development of a wetlands, I'll happily vote for a Dem.

The national Dems have always been a divided party -- leaning to blacks and labor, but stymied by their southern racist roots. When Reagan exploited the divide and plucked off the white working class, the Dems seemed baffled, and finally could only succumb to Clinton's triangulation.

Right now, the Dems are not only corrupt, but brain -dead, unable to produce a candidate at any level with new ideas.

We're all looking for how to be effective. I read Multitude by Negri and Hardt twice, but damned if I could find the answer. Maybe Steven Colbert has it, or maybe you guys. Keep it up!


To me, the question is not what Gore would have done in 2000 but what will Gore do now. The democrats dont know if we will get out Iraq, when we will get out, or how we will get out. The reason why they don't know is that they have no alternative and don't want an alternative to the entire GWOT myth structure. I am reminded of Thomas Pynchon's "If they can get you asking the wrong question, they don't have to worry about the answer".

It's clear that the neocons knew they had a clear shot to Iraq with the Republicans, hence the spectacle of John Bolton pounding on the recounting room doors in Miami-Dade in 2000, but there really is no difference between what Clinton did to Yugoslavia and what Bush is doing to Iraq. The Iraq war did not end in 1991, it just went into phase II with the sanctions and no-fly zones. The Clinton Iraq war killed hundreds of thousands and was just as vicious as the current phase. Clinton/Gore is a solid link in the history of the current imperialistic adventure that began when Carter's Brzezinski stood in the Khyber Pass after the Soviet invasion declaring, "This shall not stand". Every administration works diligently on the same pipelines and the same pools of oil.

The main difference is that Clinton had more finesse. So how do you want it? Straight up? or with a bullshit mixer?

We're actually better off. The US/Israeli axis of imperialism has been completely and irreversibly exposed.

J. Alva Scruggs:

The Gore and Iraq gambit has an element of thanksralphing. It's not just an inquiry into whether someone thinks Gore would have created a similar slaughterhouse. It's part of the cherished martydom narrative from Coup2K -- i.e. if you lefties hadn't cost Gore the election, we wouldn't be in this mess. A Gore presidency would most likely have continued the seige of Iraq, with efforts at violent neoliberal democratization directed elsewhere. There is, as you say, a well established pattern of interventions with punitive liberalisation, which serves as the guiding light of foreign policy.

js paine:

the difference that makes no difference
that's the evil dum evil dee

yes the dem's can "play"
the blood lite party
when called for
as it is now

in the symbiotic rotation in office
you need one of those
even in a torture chamber

( is it mutt or is it jeff ???)

"let me loosen those cuffs...
want a cigarette bub "

keeps the "rubed " masses hopeful

and it keeps
the power prize away
from a real alternative

our mission :
destroy that hope
and that means destroy
the beacon of that hope:

the party of the whole people


I dont disagree with anyone here on the Democrats and foreign policy, or on the Dems'corruption by money. Read James Carroll's House of War and it's very clear how the national security state has been a bi-partisan affair all along.

The Dems started out as a divided party, leaning toward labor and blacks, but stymied by their southern racist faction. Once Reagan spotted the divide and plucked away white workers, the Dems had no choice but to go with Clinton triangulation. Now they are both corrupt and without any original ideas at all.

I just dont like the idea of sitting on the sidelines, and I dont like talking about revolution unless one has a plan for how to make it happen.

Good point about parties and faith. Like a movie, voting for a political party requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief. The better the film, the less suspension is required of the viewer. The worse, the more.

With that in mind I'd put the Green Party right around the Chinatown / Rashômon area of classic goodness, the Democrats would clock in at the Porky's popular trash level and the Republicans would be somewhere below Robot Monster.


bobw -- The immediate occasion for my ponerings was indeed our exchange in an earlier thread. But it also wasn't the first time I've encountered the "surely you don't believe..." strategy, so I took the opportunity to make some general observations about it.


Alan -- I think you're being unfair to Porky's.

It's hard to "have it together" when you're spending all your time battling to gather signatures and then not having them capriciously thrown out by Democrats. :/

I gathered from my local work for a Green candidate in the spring that another roadblock for Greens is that they advocate for progressive taxation. Let's be blunt here: A lot of wealthy Prog Democrats talk a mean game but when push comes to shove, they don't want to share anymore than wealthy Right-wingers do. The less-than-wealthy have still internalized class hatred to the point where they, too, are leery of progressive taxation despite occasional noises to the contrary. Candidates are dependent on corporate media to not make them invisible, and why would corporate media want anyone talking coherently about Progressive taxation-- since it would gore their own ox/wallet as surely as that of Wells Fargo or Wal-Mart ? (Yes, here in PDX, even the alternative media is largely corporate property;maybe your home base is different.)

i.e. if you lefties hadn't cost Gore the election, we wouldn't be in this mess.

J. Alva, I think it's less about veiled Ralph-baiting than about veiled racism and xenophobia. "Gore would be better" becomes code for "It's all right that millions of Iraqis died, but not that Americans died, too."


this thread sez one thing to me

forget lesser or greater


its lesser AND greater u get

its a system

vote for either and u vote for both

so simply

we bust the two headed monopole
on its weaker head

kill the weak one and they both die

there is no getting lucky
or getting a better long run
this way or that

just get to it

off the two heads at once
by offing the lesser one

the last of two is nothing

alone its not two party montee no more

no place to hide the hope nut

the only bad out come is perpetuation
and that happens
if the two just keep up this
shrinking in tandem

we need a drastic collapse of one head

i hope
the obvious crisis on the left
might lead to this burst
in the donkery base

cautionary reminder:

this did not happen after
we all got Humped
in 68

"we " woodstockers may have dropped out
only to slide back in over the next 12 years

like the 10 year old runing away from home

of course
that sordid tale from 68 thru to reagan's 80
needs no review here

It's no different here, Ms X. Working with the local green party here in central MN, we're close to getting IRV on the ballot (they've already got it lined up for a vote in Minneapolis.) However, it's going to have to be over several dead dem bodies, who despise the very idea of IRV. There's no greater roadblock on the road of progress than the democrat party.


Terrific stuff, all around. This is just the conversation I've been looking for online.

we bust the two headed monopole
on its weaker head

kill the weak one and they both die

I like this very much and confess it hadn't occurred to me. I'd seen Dem destruction as the natural precursor to multiplying choice, but I'm pretty sure Peter Cushing would agree: staking one ventricle will do in the whole fanged thing.

What Gore might actually have done is matter of speculation, plain and simple. The correct response to “Surely you don't believe that Gore would have gone to war with Iraq?” is “Don't state as fact what you would like to be the case.”

Although past performance is no guarantee of future returns (as the prospectuses must say), I think it is worth remembering that regime change for Iraq was not US policy until the Iraq Liberation Act was signed into law on 31 October 1998 by then President William Clinton.

My suspicion is that intervention in Iraq would have happened under Gore, but it would have been a multi-lateral affair like Gulf War v. 1.0. But it's only a suspicion, nothing more.

Thanks for offering me a somewhat more rigorous logical response to the same question, which I hear from my Dem friends constantly... in the past, when somebody says "At least Gore wouldn't have gotten us into Iraq," my typical response was, "Frankly I suspect he would have," and I send them the following article: http://www.prospect.org/web/page.ww?section=root&name=ViewPrint&articleId=6064
... but their response is always to just groan and say "you´re hopeless"

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