Care about presidential power? Stay out of quagmires.

Jonathan Bernstein nails it: the biggest danger to Obama’s credibility and future power is a *disastrous war.*

It was posted ages (a day) ago, but amidst all the double-bank-shot, speculative gaming of the political situation regarding Syria, I think this simple, strong insight from Jonathan Bernstein is well worth noting:

[T]here’s one permutation that absolutely, no question about it, would destroy the rest of Barack Obama’s presidency is: a disastrous war. Ask Lyndon Johnson or George W. Bush. Or Harry Truman. Unending, seemingly pointless wars are the one sure way to ruin a presidency.

Now, I’m not saying that’s in the cards; in fact, I don’t think it is. I’m just saying: that’s the kind of thing that really does matter a lot to presidencies. And if you do believe that the administration is going down a path that winds up there, or a path that has a high risk of winding up there, then you should be very worried about the health of this presidency.

If not? None of the other permutations here are anywhere close to that kind of threat to the Obama presidency. Presidents lose key votes which are then mostly forgotten all the time. They pursue policies which poll badly, but are then mostly forgotten, all the time. There are important things to say about all of that, because “mostly” isn’t completely. But the first thing to get right when considering the effects of Syria policy on the rest of the Obama presidency is that the scale of a Vietnam or an Iraq (or a Korea, for that matter) overwhelms everything else we might talk about.

When it comes to Syria commentary, there are plenty of foxes tearing each other to pieces. But Bernstein has recalled us to a crucial piece of hedgehog wisdom. Big, endlessly escalating, unwinnable wars not only kill people (something Serious People not supposed to think about). More to the pundit’s point, they kill presidencies.


Partisan attachment and the Messina Question

One’s judgment about Messina depends on one’s reasons for being a partisan.

Keith’s post, and others’, on Jim Messina’s decision to work for the Tories, have led me to think about the different reasons for being attached to a political party. Those who differ in their reasons for being partisans in the first place will assess concrete questions of loyalty and disloyalty in very different ways.

Leaving aside mere habit and a tendency to passively adopt the affiliations of those like oneself (no doubt the most common reasons for partisanship but no fun to argue about), I see three possible reasons for attaching oneself for a party and working for its success: (1) belief in that party’s specific policy positions; (2) primal loyalty to a group or a “side”; or (3) pragmatic acquiescence in a party whose positions are more moderate than one’s own, in the hope of moving politics in a more uncompromising direction over time.
If (1) you are a Democrat because of specific policies, Messina’s decision is not that hard to justify. Continue reading “Partisan attachment and the Messina Question”

The democratic elite and the white working class: only connect

Andrew Levison’s book on the White Working Class is a great piece of political strategy. It’s also a great piece of self-help for the professional-managerial class who know less than they think about how ordinary people think and live.

I just finished reading Andrew Levison’s The White Working Class Today. (Uptight disclosure: Levison, as editor of The Democratic Strategist, has published a couple of my pieces and is a cyber-friend of mine.) The take-away blurb is, yes, buy the book if you’re at all interested in political strategy, rhetoric, or the future of the Democratic party. But it’s worth saying a bit more about what the book teaches, and in particular what books like this can teach the kind of out of touch, self-appointed opinion leader that I used to be. Continue reading “The democratic elite and the white working class: only connect”

Doubling Down on White Voters: The California Experience

California’s experience shows that targeting white voters helps a political party in the short run and kills it in the long run

Andrew Sullivan has a helpful round up of the current debate about whether the GOP can attain electoral success in the face of increasing population diversity by “doubling down” on white voters. The experience of California suggests that such a strategy can help a political party in the short term, but only at the cost of crippling it in the long term.

Younger Americans are often surprised to learn that California was a Republican-friendly state for decades. Other than in the 1964 LBJ landslide win over Goldwater, Californians supported a Republican for President every cycle from 1952 through 1988. However, by the early 1990s, the increasing diversity of the state began to alter the political landscape, just as it is doing now nationally.

The debate within the California GOP at the time was eerily similar to that happening within the national Republican Party today. Virtually all Republican leaders conceded that the rise of Latino and Asian-American voters required some response, but what that response should be was the subject of intense disagreement.

California GOP reformers, noting that a Democratic Presidential Candidate (Bill Clinton) had broken the GOP lock on the state in 1992 with strong support from minority voters, argued that the party had to modernize by reaching out to people of color. A different faction, who pointed out that Clinton had captured only 46% of the popular vote and that Ross Perot had attracted many conservative white voters, insisted that the Republican party needed to go hard right, including by making race-based appeals to white voters.

The two GOP factions battled each other in the lead-up to the 1994 gubernatorial election and the “double-downers” won. Anti-immigrant ballot Proposition 187 was the central issue of the contest, and like any Californian I can attest to the venomous, racially-divisive nature of the debate that surrounded it. Republican Pete Wilson publicly embraced the measure at every campaign stop, and rode anti-immigrant sentiment to re-election with strong support from White voters.

In the process, Wilson and those who advised him to double-down on white voters did lasting damage to the California Republican Party from which it has never recovered. In the minds of much of the population of this minority-majority state, the GOP is the party of white people who don’t like non-white people, a branding that — fair or not — repulses most minority voters and no small number of white voters as well.

Subsequent Democratic Presidential candidates have not even bothered to campaign in California; why should they? They need only stop by to gather big campaign contributions that would have gone to Republicans in prior eras. Traditional Republicans are neutered in the state legislature and have no chance in the gubernatorial race either. The only Republican Governor since Wilson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, won by packaging himself as a post-partisan figure and following it through by rejecting many of the national GOP’s key positions.

The California lesson for the national GOP? Racially divisive appeals to alienated white voters can work, perhaps especially in a mid-term election. Indeed, doubling down on white voters may well work nationally in 2014. But pursuing such short-term electoral rewards is a route to long-term political oblivion in an increasingly diverse America.

Small percentages, large numbers, and political “events”

Insight from an old article: where there are lots of people, small percentages of people can have a big absolute impact.

Reading Marc Stears’ Demanding Democracy yesterday, I realized that I didn’t know what had happened at Columbia in 1968 (as opposed to Berkeley and Cornell) and decided to chase down one of his footnotes: Allen H. Barton, “The Columbia Crisis” (Public Opinion Quarterly 32 [1968]: 333-51; academic paywall). Three things about it struck me.

1. An article like this would never be published in an academic social science journal today (except maybe PS: Political Science and Politics). Right after the Columbia sit-in and violent police response, Barton designed and sent out a survey on it (funded by a research institute at Columbia, which also probably wouldn’t fund such a thing nowadays); wrote it up and got it published in record time—the events happened in the Spring of ’68 and the article appeared in the Fall—and reported the results as a contribution to a real-life political debate, not a theoretical debate within political science or sociology (Barton’s field). We’ve gained a lot as social science fields have become more professionalized, but we’ve also lost something.

2. Barton was eerily prescient about what might happen if, as seemed likely when he wrote, the parties nominated Nixon and Humphrey in 1968 and left antiwar voters with no outlet for their anger: alienation and mass protest, met by calls for “law and order” on the other side, with the prospect of even-greater polarization and a widening generation gap (full quotation at the bottom of this post). When I was in graduate school, it was common for professors to lament the demise of the old politics in which party elites were able to focus on economic issues and keep “distracting” questions off the agenda. That was wrong, and Garry Wills after the fact, like Barton before it, was right: our politics suffered permanent harm when opponents of the Vietnam War, having become a near-majority of the public, were unable to vote for a candidate who clearly represented that position (as opposed to Humphrey’s late and, it seems, unconvincing evolution).

3. Barton said something about small minorities and large numbers that really matters and that I’ve never seen expressed so well. Slightly misreading one of his own tables showing that only 17 percent of Columbia students thought it was all right for protestors to have broken into President Kirk’s office and copied many of his files, Barton wrote (on p. 337): Continue reading “Small percentages, large numbers, and political “events””

What Detroit means

The first thing I thought about Detroit is that the state’s appointment of a receiver demonstrated the Republican governor’s profound indifference to the democratic process of a Democratic city, not to mention a white governor’s profound indifference to a black city.   This may be true, but it’s also true that Detroit’s finances are such a catastrophe that, like New York in the 1970s, it seems to need an outsider to get its house in order. It helps that the trustee is African-American, though not very much: even temporary government without the consent of the governed should cause us alarm.

The second thing I thought about Detroit is that selling off the collection of the Detroit Institute of Art, which the trustee estimates would be sufficient to retire all of the city’s debt, is the best of a number of bad options. Museums nationwide are hyperventilating at the prospect, but they also think it’s sensible to keep on hand huge numbers of items that no one ever sees.  I don’t quarrel with the need to have a deep collection for research purposes, but I also don’t see why it’s considered bad form verging on unethical to sell the parts of the collection you’re not using in public to sustain the parts of the collection you ARE using in public, and at the same time not coincidentally making the sold pieces available to the public, albeit in a different location.

If there had been a Great Fire of Detroit, and the whole city destroyed, no one would argue that recreating the city’s art collection should take priority over food and shelter for the city’s people.  The years of financial mismanagement have incinerated Detroit just as surely as a physical fire; why shouldn’t we pay more attention to basic needs than to cultural institutions?

And isn’t the whole function of assets to provide financial security when income doesn’t suffice? Again, I wonder about the racial composition of those who champion the inviolability of the collection as against the racial composition of those who think it might be necessary to dispose of it. The state’s Attorney General has opined that the city may not sell them because they’re held in trust for the citizens.  But “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government,” and I don’t notice anyone’s raising a ruckus about the loss of that part of our patrimony.

The third thing I thought about Detroit is that the bondholders’ interests are being given absolute priority over the interests of current and former employees, whose pensions are at stake. This is the case in Illinois as well, where at least some portion of the pension “crisis” could be solved by refinancing the debt and stretching out repayment but where that solution is not even considered because the bondholders don’t like it. I understand the value of the municipal bond market to cities’ ability to expand infrastructure but municipal bond investors are investors and should be prepared to accept some pain when they toss their dollars into what’s obviously a money pit.

And the fourth thing I thought about Detroit is that it’s Americans’ closest analogue to what’s casually referred to as “the European debt crisis,”  throughout which salvaging the Euro has meant satisfying bondholders at the expense of people who’d like to work or collect their pensions.   Very few commentators seem aware that the real crisis is one of self-government (or its destruction), or that the Germans have managed to do through economics what they couldn’t do through war, that is, run Europe.  When externally-imposed austerity hit Greece, all I could remember was the bumper sticker from the era of the junta: “Greece: Democracy born 508 BC, died 1967 AD.”  Or, this time around, “reborn 1974, killed again 2011 or -12 A.D.”  As the saying goes, same s**t, different day.

Back to Detroit: if I were trustee, I’d sell off DIA’s assets in a heartbeat and use the proceeds to protect employee pensions. If there was anything left for the bondholders, fine; if not, too bad: it’s the pensioners who paid their share and are entitled to what they were promised. Even after years of trashing public employee unions (brought to you by the Heritage Foundation and other fronts for wealthy people who don’t like to pay taxes or see working people make reasonable money), there must be some court somewhere willing to recognize that the obligation of contracts shall not be impaired.

Of course, I would never be chosen trustee, but that’s not the point. The point is, my solution is what would happen if Detroit were still governed by its people. Detroit: Democracy died 2013 A.D.

Under the Gaydar Advocacy

Sometimes when advocates want to change society, they conclude that they need to “get in people’s faces” about the issue, call in the TV cameras, march in the streets and thereby force a national conversation to occur.

At other times, advocates quietly accrue small victories out of limelight until the facts on the ground have changed before any significant opposition has been roused.

In a fascinating article at Washington Monthly, Alison Gash points out that same sex marriage advocates took the former route, whereas same sex parenting advocates took the latter. Gash compares the process and outcomes of both initiatives, concluding that

History books suggest that our society has made its greatest leaps on the shoulders of high profile campaigns. But change can also be the result of quiet battles that play out in courtrooms, boardrooms and bedrooms all across the country. And it is often these hidden battles that most effectively propel our society forward.

Teles on kludgeocracy

Steve Teles on kludgeocracy is as mind-blowing an essay as Harry Frankfurt on bullsh*t.

Every once in a while, you run into an essay that changes the way you look at the world by putting a name and an analytic framework on a familiar and important, but neglected, phenomenon. Harry Frankfurt’s “On Bullsh*t” was such an essay. Steve Teles’s “Kludgeocracy” is another.

The argument is simple in outline: American politics has too many veto points, and the result tends to be jury-rigged policies that are opaque, inefficient, maladministered, and even corrupt. (One example Teles doesn’t give is immigration, where opponents of immigration get to write the laws and supporters of immigration get to make sure they’re badly enforced.)

The implications are far-reaching. I think Teles is right to say that naming the problem could be a first step toward dealing with it.

If you read the essay and conclude that I wasted your time, send me an email and I’ll donate $10 to your favorite charity.

Is the Left Better at Facing Inconvenient Truths?

Long-time reader Ed Whitney wrote me an email that was too intriguing to keep as a private communication. Ed graciously agreed to turn his thoughts into a guest blog post. What follows was written by him:

Nate Silver’s new book, The Signal and the Noise, begins with a sobering parallel between the age of the invention of the printing press and the age of the internet. When printing decreased the cost of books by a factor of three hundred, the people of Europe were exposed to an information explosion, one of whose consequences was the proliferation of writings which were isolated along religious and national lines. The cost of “too much information” is selective engagement with it, picking out what we want to read and ignoring the rest. Greater sectarianism, accelerated by increasing information, led to a series of bloody religious wars in a Europe fragmented by people who chose different kinds of information as a focus of their attention.

Selective attention to information, Silver suggests, leads to calamitous failures of prediction. We focus on the signals which give us an world narrative we want to believe, not one that tells us what the world around us is really doing.

Because Nate Silver himself became a news item in the 2012 election, and because he had become prominent in other recent elections, the responses to his work present us with an opportunity to compare and contrast how different segments of society deal with information which tells them things which they would rather not hear. The seduction of selective engagement with information may be a universal phenomenon requiring all of us to beware of our susceptibility to it. But we have a chance to look at two distinct patterns of response to inconvenient truth: the Republicans in 2012 and the Democrats in 2010. In the midyear election, Silver forecast a Republican tidal wave increasing their power in both houses of Congress; in the presidential election just finished, he foretold a successful reelection bid by the incumbent.

There have been a number of posts and links on the RBC demonstrating how many Republicans responded to Silver’s models showing a high probability of an Obama victory; conservatives howled with disbelief and impugned Silver’s motives and his very personhood, insisting that Silver was only trying to help a hopeless cause and thwart an inevitable Romney triumph.

Now comes the opportunity to compare and contrast with 2010. Right here at the RBC, Jonathan Zasloff noted that Nate Silver forecast a very good year for the GOP, and focused on a race which was still within the Democrats’ reach: the Colorado Senate Race, which Michael Bennett did in fact win. Rather than howl in anger at data which foretold a grim election night for the blue team, he focused on races in which the polling data were close enough to motivate get out the vote efforts in those states and districts.

Similarly, at Mother Jones, David Roberts used the word “shellacked” to characterize what he saw as a “fact” about the upcoming midterm elections, and Kevin Drum also accepted that 2010 looked bleak for Democrats. The unwelcome predictions of Nate Silver and other pollsters were accepted as valid, as arrived at by analysis of data and not though self-hatred, nihilism, or any of a number of psychobabble constructs which might have been leveled at them by a partisan who just did not want to believe that the Tea Party was going to have reason to celebrate in November. Josh Marshall similarly accepted the Silver estimate of a 10% chance that Tom Periello would manage to win the race which he ended up losing.

Mitt Romney went on record attributing his party’s losses to the incumbent’s pandering to the moochers in the electorate. Democrats meanwhile are actively discussing what led to their successes largely in terms of policy differences which were more enlightened than Team Red was trying to propose.

So the question for contemplation is this: what if the different level of 2012 success of the two parties is due to one side being better able than the other to resist the Siren call of what it wants to hear rather than being due to differences in policies offered up during the campaign? We hear that truth has a liberal bias; however, it is possible that a liberal ability to control self-deception confers a survival advantage on liberalism and its causes.

Second question: What should we do in order to discipline our habits of placement of attention toward all valid information, welcome or not? Should we start to listen to Rush Limbaugh and Fox News? I think not. Just because something is good to hear, does not make it valid, true enough. But just because something grates on our ears, does not make it valid, either. In both cases, our visceral responses to information is not a measure of its worthiness of our attention. Another criterion of what should command our attention is needed. The floor is open for discussion.

The Political Schizophrenia of Marijuana Legalization

Our friends at Washington Monthly have provided a vivid example of a piquant feature of drug legalization debates.

As a group, the editors and writers at Washington Monthly have been broadly supportive of the proposition that we should regulate marijuana like alcohol. Yet the current issue carries Tim Heffernan’s expose on the monopolistic, addiction-generating, profit-grubbing ways of…you guessed it, the alcohol industry.

I am not picking on our WashMo friends as some sort of bizarre exception to the rule, they are very much in the left-wing mainstream: Strongly convinced that marijuana should be regulated like alcohol, while simultaneously being completely distrustful of the very industry they are holding up as a model (this is even moreso the case when the comparision is made to the legal tobacco industry).

Meanwhile on the political right, a parallel role reversal occurs. Most conservatives want to punch those dirty hippees who are trying to push back government control and make way for a private sector business because, damn it, that’s, that’s…wait a minute, that’s what WE always say is a good idea! Those damn hippees stole our playbook!

What is going on? Why do liberals who are normally skeptical of corporate power and aware of the limits of government regulation become wide-eyed innocents when singing the virtues of a legal marijuana industry? Why do government-hating pro-business conservatives suddenly want the government to stamp out all the private sector marijuana entrepreneurs?

Way too many aspects of U.S. politics are explained as being a “legacy of the 1960s and 1970s”. But…this is a legacy of the 1960s and 1970s. The cultural coding of marijuana as a thing that liberals like and conservatives hate is so strong that each group tends to ignore all its other beliefs on this issue and adopt the other’s traditional stance.

I am not a baby boomer, so the odds are I will never get this at a gut level because I wasn’t “there”. But it still fascinates me as a sociopolitical phenomenon.