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.

Who still regards their votes as secrets?

Speculations on who answers “none of your beeswax” when asked “how are you voting?”—and why.

About half an hour ago I was eating lunch (outside: this is L.A.) and overheard two female undergraduates talking about heading to the polls. One asked the other, “how are you voting?” The reply, with a smile: “none of your beeswax!”

The answer seemed unusual–not unheard-of, and when said with a smile not offensive, but not what one would normally hear. When I went to grade school in the 70s, I was taught that it was very impolite to ask other kids’ parents–or even one’s own!–how they voted. I certainly gathered then, and at least through middle school, that anyone who did ask would receive a none-of-your-business response at least half the time, perhaps coupled with anger at the questioner’s impudence for asking.

The norm of regarding voting as secret to friends may have been an oddity of place (West L.A.), perhaps coupled with ethnicity: the teacher who taught me the norm was African-American, and my grade school was in an area full of immigrants, refugees, Japanese-Americans, a few probable communists, and others who might not have taken their voting rights for granted. But whether I was taught an odd norm or the country has changed, I gather that few Americans now think it strange to ask others how they vote, and almost nobody would think it appropriate to express anger upon being asked. Meanwhile, my wife, who’s from New Zealand, has told me that where she’s from the norm I was taught is still in place: one doesn’t ask, and one doesn’t have to tell.

What accounts for this? Are there data? If not, can anyone provide interesting anecdotal evidence (my favorite oxymoron)? My own speculations are that in the U.S. the vote-as-secret norm tracks (1) contested civic status, as just mentioned, and/or (2) having unpopular politics: Democrats in Provo, or Republicans in Santa Monica, would be unlikely to want to tell others their vote and also, by the Golden Rule, disinclined to ask. Internationally, country-to-country differences might well track broader cultural norms about extroversion and reticence, and perhaps even strong inter-country disagreement as to what democracy is all about and how it properly functions. I’d love to hear about those too, in the form of either fact or conjecture.

Because of these speculations, I tend to wish that the norm were back in place, at least a little. For if I’m right, the people most likely to be offended at being asked their voting intentions will be those who remember when someone tried to take away their vote, or those who most need the secrecy of the ballot box to avoid social ostracism. So feel free to combine normative argument with the empirical speculation.

Voting as though reality matters

Matt Stoller thinks this would be a good time to vote for a third-party candidate.  His case, approximately, comes in two parts.  The first is a sheet of charges against Obama for bad things he did and good things he didn’t do in his first term (some of which are a little naïve about what actual presidential power), all of which grade him on an absolute scale. Observations like this are not without value as guidance for a second term, or just interesting policy discussion that makes participants smarter.   No great harm done here, and I myself deplore Obama’s environmental non-record and much else. But this stuff is entirely vacuous as guides to action: to decide what to do we need measures that obey the “compared to what?” rule, in this case comparing Obama to Romney, not to the paladin of your imagining.  Opinion formation and schmoosing are not at all like making decisions (irretrievable commitments of resources to one alternative rather than another).

What makes this column one of the worst pieces of discourse on the left in this election cycle is the second part, where Stoller gets up on a high horse of principle and starts advocating actually voting for third-party candidates who cannot possibly win.  It is a cascade of mush-headed apocalyptic dreaming about how things might be if they weren’t the way they are: vague, romantic claptrap from a dream world.  The alternative to Obama in this election is not a revolution of progressives seizing the nation and saving it, it is four or even eight years of accelerated income disparity, two supreme court appointments of Neanderthals, horrific oppression of women, quite possibly a military adventure in Syria and Iran, and submergence of those progressives for decades. That is the alternative on the ground, no matter what fairy stories anyone wishes to tell around the campfire of the apocalyptophile meeting.    Continue reading “Voting as though reality matters”