Democrats, Please Ignore Mark Penn. Mark Penn, Please Be Quiet.

A slip of the Penn

Politics Features Mark Penn
Democrats, Please Ignore Mark Penn. Mark Penn, Please Be Quiet.

Mark Penn is a political strategist, and was one of the pilots of Hillary’s November defeat. He recently urged the Democratic Party to crawl back to the center. Eoin Higgins, writing for Paste, summarized the awkward moment well:

Mark Penn’s op-ed, “Back to the Center, Democrats,” was published on Thursday in The New York Times. It was written with Trump supporter Andrew Stein. In the piece, Penn and Stein exhort Democrats to tilt to the right in order to start winning elections—as if that’s not what put them in this hole to begin with. … Penn has no right to talk to the audience of the Times—or anyone, really—about anything related to politics. The reason for his total lack of credibility dates back to 2008.

As Higgins points out, Penn’s advice comes after a long streak of questionable judgments. His failure to elect the Clinton family is only the most recent disappointment. In the past, even when Penn won, it was in service of the sketchiest causes. Branko Marcetic of Jacobin reminds us of the pollster’s storied history:

Penn’s achievements were considerable: he allowed Clinton to gut welfare, pass a crime bill that destroyed black communities, deregulate the financial industry, ban same-sex marriage, and very nearly privatize Social Security. Time magazine at the time called Clinton’s post-re-election policies “a wild, drunken Republican dream.”


And now he advises us to reclaim the vital center, whatever in the seven levels of flaming Starfleet that is supposed to be. But Penn’s pulpit turn, as ill-advised as it is, draws the observer to the query direct: why is this man giving advice at all? Why would anyone take him seriously? Penn never hid his affection for the faithless part of his professional level. In 2007, Burger and Jensen wrote all about Penn’s predilection for revenue over political belief. This is from Bloomberg:

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton proposed on Feb. 27 more research funds for new energy technology, including “clean’’ coal systems. The next day, Mark Penn, her top campaign strategist, had a different take on coal. In an internal blog at his other job, as chief executive officer of public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, Penn wrote of how Burson worked “behind the scenes’’ for TXU Corp., a Texas company seeking to build power plants fueled by pulverized coal, which some environmentalists say would be major polluters. Contradictions between Penn’s private business dealings and Clinton’s public policy positions — which Penn helps formulate and sell to voters — point up potential clashes in doing both campaign consulting and corporate advocacy. Penn’s firm works for clients, from a tobacco company to drugmakers, whose interests are often at odds with the New York senator’s agenda.

This was all fine with Clinton, according to Burger and Jensen.

Penn, who entered the top echelons of politics by helping President Bill Clinton win re-election in 1996, sees no conflict, according to the blog, which he regularly writes for colleagues at the 2,500-person, New York-based Burson. In one entry, “Workin With Hillary,’’ he wrote, “I have found the mixing of corporate and political work to be stimulating, enormously helpful in attracting talent, and helpful in cross- pollinating new ideas and skills.” “And,” he added, “I have found it good for business.”

I’ll bet you do, as the preacher told the boy who said he liked beer. There have always been Penns in politics. But for such a man to give advice on principle and virtue is like hiring an oil tanker to teach gardening.

Penn captivates me, because as man who seems to have no true north, he has an immense amount of influence. Why does Mark Penn have influence? Because he served a President, Clinton, and was successful in sliding the knife into the Great Society. But why was he hired by the Clintons? Who decides who has influence? Only the mostly saintly of men:

Penn was first ushered into the Clinton inner circle by consultant Dick Morris to help on Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. Morris had to step aside after he was linked to a prostitute, and Penn moved into the void.


Ignore the awkward construction of that last phrase. Morris picked up Penn, who then picked apart welfare. Where did Morris sweep up Penn from? From his origin point: corporate life. Penn spent the eighties shilling for Texaco and other Wall Street big wheels. Before that he had helped various terrible politicians in other countries try to climb to power. Before that, he started up his consulting company in his dorm room at Harvard.

By now, I believe, we can detect a pattern. There is a chain which links Mark Penn from privileged point to privileged point his entire life. Arguably, at no point has he proven his worth at any of the arts: politicking, prophecy, corporate advocacy. His clients are uniformly rich and powerful. He moves from one prince to another, and claims success for keeping them up top. But the status quo is doing all the work for him. Mark Penn is a creature of the meritocracy, and he proves why it is false: Penn will always be important, no matter how many times he fails. They will always ask him to give advice.


The world dotes on the theory of dessert. Here’s how that theory works: if a person is good at school, they will be good at their job. If they are good at their job, then success will propel them to the highest levels of society. The best and brightest will then be in charge. Once they are up top, they will recognize other excellent people … and thus by a forever process of like recognizing like, a family of high achievement picking out its cousins from the motley crowd, we have a chorus of excellencies driving the world. But of course, this is a fantasy. A lot of the time, what happens is much simpler: you get into the club, and you never leave, no matter how bad you are, or how poorly you do.

In a piece in the Guardian, Stephen Buryani discusses how the monstrously profitable academic publishing racket works:

It is difficult to overstate how much power a journal editor now had to shape a scientist’s career and the direction of science itself. “Young people tell me all the time, ‘If I don’t publish in CNS [a common acronym for Cell/Nature/Science, the most prestigious journals in biology], I won’t get a job,” says Schekman. He compared the pursuit of high-impact publications to an incentive system as rotten as banking bonuses. “They have a very big influence on where science goes,” he said. And so science became a strange co-production between scientists and journal editors, with the former increasingly pursuing discoveries that would impress the latter. These days, given a choice of projects, a scientist will almost always reject both the prosaic work of confirming or disproving past studies, and the decades-long pursuit of a risky “moonshot”, in favour of a middle ground: a topic that is popular with editors and likely to yield regular publications. “Academics are incentivised to produce research that caters to these demands,” said the biologist and Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner in a 2014 interview, calling the system “corrupt.”

But of course! Like attracts like, real recognizes real. The mutual law of gravitation attracts similar bodies one to another. Fluid dynamics states that water molecules will seek to maintain coherence through surface tension. Isn’t this why companies promote from within? Isn’t this why most friendships are decided by proximity? These stories of how people get promoted and recognized are glosses. The seamless stories of the best and brightest—they are but cobwebs of words laid over the same old gears and cogs of influence.

Blogger Chris Dillow argued that two phenomena—publishing and hedge fund managing—are a plant grown out from the same root.

These two observations are related. They show us that selection mechanisms – peer review, hiring fund managers and the funds market – don’t necessarily select for the best. … It also fits with the poor performance of fund managers. One reason for this is that older fund managers hire and train younger ones on the basis of judgment-based stock selection rather than their ability to exploit proven means of beating the market such as defensive or momentum investing. … The point here is simple. Institutions – be they markets, firms, universities, publishers or whatever – are (among other things) selection mechanisms. We should not assume that such mechanisms work perfectly to optimize efficiency or truth. We must look under the bonnet to ask how exactly they work, rather than tell ourselves just-so stories.


The solution is not to “fix” the meritocracy, to make sure the “right” people get all the toys. The answer is for everyone to get the toys.

Why, the career of Penn is enough to make you believe that there is a structural and ideological component to our society which holds up an upper class. It’s almost as if there is an entire system of belief built to support and protect that class.

This is predictable, if you study the history of the world. In the old days, people believed that God chose some people to rule, and that it was steeped in the blood, like sickle-cell and hemophilia. Some people were born to rule, and that’s all you could say about that. Now, we have a new deity to pick and choose: the market and the standardized test. Both of which are false and broken.

But we allow it to rule us as surely as the nobility ruled over the peasantry of Europe. Spreadsheet maketh aristocracy. Nobody ever asks, why have an aristocracy at all? Take the bolt-cutters to this notion. Mark Penn should abandon public life in America—perhaps there are other countries whose welfare systems he could try to destroy. It’s a wide world, after all. Penn should leave politics to the many, not his clientele of the few. It would be his greatest (and his only) -true success. Away from the Pennter, Democrats.

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