Wednesday, February 28, 2018

On Snow Emergencies, Democractic Norms, and Donald Trump

Recently we had a big blizzard here in Minneapolis. Well it wasn't that big, not like the Halloween Blizzard of my youth, or any number of other pretty big ones you could look up. But we did have about five inches over night on a Thursday/Friday, a clear up during Friday, followed by another eight or more inches overnight on Friday/Saturday.

When these sorts of things happen in Minneapolis the city generally declares a "Snow Emergency". Snow Emergencies are a big deal in The City Of Lakes and differ a bit from what you might be familiar with, like in Boston, where they just plow the middle of the streets, or Washington DC where basically everyone panics, abandons their cars in the middle of the street, and run home to hide for three weeks or so. In Minneapolis Snow Emergencies are a highly complicated affair. (Please note suburban cities in the Twin Cities have their own rules, some simply ban on street parking after large snowfalls until every thing is plowed or even parking in general in the winter, but for this blog post I am talking about the City of Minneapolis.)

So how do Snow Emergencies in Minneapolis work? Well feel free to check out the official rules, but gist of it is this:
  • The city can declare a Snow Emergency any day before 6:00 pm. Once declared it's illegal to park on "snow emergency routes" (main thoroughfares) in the  city from 8:00 pm to the following 8:00 am.
  • Starting the following 8:00 am it is illegal to park on the even side of the street until 8:00 pm or until the street is "fully plowed".
  • Starting the next 8:00 am its illegal to park on the odd side of the street until 8:00 pm or until the street is fully plowed.
  • Cars that aren't moved are subjected to getting a ticket and possibly towed.
The upshot of this is a series of negative incentives that traditionally have made sure most people pay attention after big snowfalls to see if a Snow Emergency has been declared and move their cars accordingly. Meaning the gargantuan task of plowing a city with well over 1000 miles of streets and parkways that many people park their cars on can be accomplished in just 72 hours. More over in a city where most, but not all, neighborhoods have enough on street parking for everyone to park on one side of the street the "Snow Emergency Shuffle" is quite doable, if also something of a pain in the neck. And in my experience it really can work! Streets can be cleared and everyone can go back to parking wherever without the giant built up of snow mounds that can make streets impassible for emergency vehicles and everyone else.

But here's the thing to remember, this system, while backed up by the power of the city in a very real legal way (you can get a ticket, someone can come and tow your car to the impound lot, if you try to stop them by force you'll get arrested and be prosecuted), but at the same time it is dependent on people complying both due to incentives, and also out of learned habits as well. In fact, getting your car towed during one is a right of passage for many people from Greater Minnesota or the suburbs who "move to the big city" which is part of how the norm gets established for new comers. Moreover these norms aren't all just about avoiding punishment. Moving your car in compliance with the rules can be seen as a good thing, as in "If we do this then the street can be plowed and better for everyone! You idiots who didn't follow the rules are making it worse for the rest of us!" 

In other words, it's a system that is dependent on social norms as much as big trucks or logistical experts in Public Works planning on how to deploy said trucks over three days.

So what does this have to do with Trump and democracy? Well here's what happened to me during the snowy weekend. A Snow Emergency was declared on Friday meaning that plowing of the street where I park my car would start on the even side at 8:00 am Saturday. Easy enough for me, I parked on the odd side Friday night and was fine. Then on Saturday night around 5:00 pm I went to move my car to the even side of the street (as they would be plowing the odd side starting on Sunday 8 am) and to my horror (well okay annoyance) I discovered lots of people hadn't moved their cars, there was no ticketing or towing, and the city hadn't even plowed the even side of many streets.

In other words, the norms of the system had broken down and thus the institutional aspect of it had as well, and vice versa. After all ticketing and towing cars works as an incentive if only a few people break the rule, if lots of people don't do it there's just no way to possibly to punish everyone. Likewise if everyone starts ignoring the rule, you can't plow close to the curb as there are cars in the way, and so what once was a solvable problem becomes giant unmovable ice mounds that cause people to park closer together and close off the street.

What struck me that night as I pondered whether to move my car to the semi-plowed even street and risk a ticket, wait until 8 pm to do it and be sure it would be okay, or just wake up early and on Monday was that this was a good metaphor for an underappreciated problem with politics in The Trump Era.

Any political scientist could tell you that democracies are not just based on written rules and systems but also upon informal agreed upon norms that are there to make sure the system works. In other words the city can't force everyone to comply with snow emergency rules, people have to agree to follow them to some degree. Moreover once those norms breakdown, ie people start not caring about Snow Emergency announcements because it's not clear anyone else does, it's really hard to get them back.

And that's a big part of what the problem Trump poses to our democracy as he's breaking down democratic norms every chance he gets. To cite a few examples:
A list like this could go on for pages.

I think the poses a huge problem for liberals who are starting to think about what a post-Trump political era might look like. Liberals generally like "good government" reforms and so there's a lot talk about that, see Michelle Goldberg for a typical reformist agenda in a recent column that calls for things like tougher ethics rules. But at the end of her column she quotes political scientist Steven Levitsky who points out that simply changing the rules, without norms to back them up, is ultimately unlikely to work (he's written a book about this whole point).

You can see this in my Snow Emergency anecdote. What sort of "reform" would fix this this problem? Higher fines might discourage some, but then again if there's no way to fine everyone and so lots of people will still ignore it, and it's hardly fair or an effective deterrent if infrequently applied (see this classic example here). More and better equipment could plows the streets quicker, except if people don't move their cars in which case it becomes basically impossible. Better outreach might get the word out more broadly (there is already an app, a Twitter account, a email and text alert service, however) but if people just ignore it that won't work.

In other words, the norms are an important part of Snow Emergencies (and democracy) that more rules and technocratic reforms can't really make up for.

The good news is the City just declared another Snow Emergency on Sunday and people seemed to take it more seriously so the streets are much better. Plus its warming up so maybe climate change will save us all. But it's also quite possible the first botched one will cause real damage in the future, much like even a single failed Trump term could cause real lasting damage to the social norms of our collective City On A Hill for a long time.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Survey Thing

Not a real post, but I wanted to let everyone who reads this know that a team of researchers from Stony Brook University have asked me to help them study the role that emotion plays in politics. I have completed the survey myself, and it only took me a few minutes to finish. The survey is completely anonymous. 

Click the link below to begin the survey:

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Trump One Year In

While I missed the official one year anniversary, I would like to submit my views on where we are after one year of President Game Show Host. Of course trying to predict Trump and what our politics will look like in January of 2021 is going to be pretty hard. Especially for someone like me who really didn't think he'd win the GOP nomination. But at the same time we're over 25% through the first (and hopefully only) term and I think some pretty major trends have already emerged.

A little over a year ago when we were looking down the barrel of a Trump Administration economist and old school blogger Brad DeLong wrote a nice post predicting what might happen that's really stuck with me. DeLong suggest four possible outcomes for the Trump Era. He opens with Trump as Reagan, that is a president presiding over a bunch of different factions, who believed a bunch of contradictory things, and who did a bunch of contradictory things (some good, some bad) and it will not be clear what was important for a while:
People with Trump's baton will try to implement everything he said on the campaign trail. Some will succeed. Most will fail. Policy will be random. Which random part? We don't know. Will he protect and expand Social Security and Medicare? Is he going to deport 5 million people in the next two years and build a wall? Is he going to make Mexico pay for it? Is he going to somehow "renegotiate" NAFTA? Is he going to somehow reach into the WTO and try to kick China out of it? Is he going to impose tariffs? Is he going to promote a substantial fiscal stimulus? Is he going to make America great again?
I think it's fair to say that one year in, Trump is no Reagan, so we can discard that one.

Delong then offers three other possibilities:
...Trump will be like Arnold Schwarzenegger when he was governor of California--an office he won in a "discontent with normal politics" election. Arnold had substantial personality similarities with Trump: the word in Sacramento was that no woman should ever get into an elevator alone with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

As California governor he tried to make Hollywood-style deals and failed comprehensively. The state government went on autopilot. He hung out in his smoking tent with his cigars. It was eight years of missed opportunities to address the challenges facing California.

The third possibility is Berlusconi. An awful lot of public money going astray and into the pockets of the kleptocrat and his friends. An awful lot of random policy decisions, with occasional bursts of technocracy as something leads the leader of the bunga-bunga movement to think that this is an issue area where, you know, somebody with real expertise should be handling the situation. This kind of bunga-bunga governance is definitely a possibility. Italy lost a decade of economic growth, I think, because of Berlusconi.
...
The fourth possibility is one that I do not want to put on the table but that I have to put on the table: Mussolini. 
These three possibilities are what I want to talk about because as I see it we are probably some where between "The Governator" and Berlusconi.

Personally I think the "Mussolini Possibility", while might have made sense as a tail risk back a year ago is obviously now wrong. Trump isn't a powerful president who might be able to storm into Congress and have everyone arrested Charles I style. After all he had trouble getting the military to follow through with his stupid "Transgender Ban" which is now tied up in the Federal Courts.

Even the strongest case that he is an authoritarian posed to seize power, one rooted in the whole Russia-Mueller thing is pretty weak evidence. The timeline here is important: basically Trump got worried the FBI director was asking too many questions so fired him, this resulted in a political crisis where his own Attorney General recused himself from decision making, and the number two man at the DOJ appointed a respected special prosecutor to investigate things. This prosecutor, Robert Mueller, is already indicting close Trump allies for serious federal crimes and God know what else he and his team have discovered.

This isn't a nascent dictator, it's a desperate president in a weak position.

And that in my opinion is the key to understand the Trump Era one year in. Political scientist Matt Glassman wrote the full "Trump as weak president" argument up in an excellent long form piece for Vox this year and I think he's spot on. Glassman is basing his argument on the works of political scientist Richard Neustadt's classic studies of the presidency that argue it's statutory a pretty weak office (it is compared to say Britain's Prime Minister) and thus presidents who want to be effective have to find ways to "bargain" with say Congress or bureaucracies or whoever through the careful use of political skill.

Trump is not good at these sorts of thing, thus he hasn't had a good first year.

Or as Glassman puts it:
Trump has had a disastrous first year. His professional reputation is awful. Major figures from his own party routinely criticize his impulsive rhetoric and chaotic management, belittle his intelligence, mock his political ideas, and bemoan his lack of policy knowledge. The White House issues talking points, and high-ranking Republicans simply ignore them. Multiple Republican-led congressional committees are investigating his administration on topics ranging from ethics violations to foreign electoral collusion.

Similarly, the president’s public prestige, measured by approval ratings, is among the worst in the polling age. He entered office with record-low approval, 45 percent, and it has steadily declined into the 30s. No other president has had an approval lower than 49 percent in December of his first year; the average is 63 percent. Such numbers sap Trump’s power to leverage popularity into persuasion. They also depress party loyalists concerned about 2018 and embolden potential primary challengers for 2020.
I think this is exactly right.

In other words the Trump's first term represents an already profound missed opportunity, it usually is the most productive year an administration in terms of legislation after all. Trump has succeeded in rolling back environmental, labor, and consumer protections yes. As well a nominate a lot of conservative judges to the federal bench that have been confirmed by the Senate. But that's normal for Republican presidents. Meanwhile many of his top White House staff, Cabinet Members, and agency heads are have had to resign and/or were fired due to scandals, White House failures, or losing Game Of Thrones style power struggles.

To put it bluntly this is a failing, unpopular, weak presidency, which makes it look something like options two or three above, and that's the key part.

To be sure Democrats or other anti-Trump folks shouldn't be gleeful about this, because there are real dangers here. Glassman pointed out these dangers in the end of his piece this way, "A president unable to effectively govern the bureaucracy or lead American foreign policy poses a distinctly nonpartisan problem for the nation." In other words Trump might try to do even stupider stuff than he's tried so far to compensate for his weakness. Like starting a trade war that will damage the economy or creating a crisis with North Korea that could result in nuclear war. These are risks that seem very real with Trump, although who knows if they will happen. 

Which isn't to say he's having no impact. I think he is changing American politics, but will leave writing about that for another day.

But one year in what I see is a weak president, exhausted by the job, and becoming reactive to events, even if he does this by screaming on Twitter. This is bad, and while it's not clear what the next three years hold, this is where I think we are at.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

President Oprah Is A Terrible Idea

In case you've missed it while living on the Moon for the past week, or like me don't watch Hollywood awards shows, the hot new idea for how to fix American politics is the having Oprah Winfrey, yes the one and only, become president.

My general position on this as a liberal Democrat and someone who wants to see American politics "work" is this: please for the love of God no.

Don't get me wrong, if the Age Of Trump has taught us one thing it's that anyone who secures the nomination of a major political party has a chance of winning a general election, so yes Oprah could win.

Moreover while the Democratic Party seems to have a better grip on its presidential nomination than the Republicans who lost it to Trump due to a combination of media coverage, party dysfunction, "resentment", and bad luck, Oprah still could win the nomination as she shares with Trump many, but not all, of his key strengths as a candidate. She has sky high name recognition and approval, she could spend an almost unlimited amount of her own money. And as political scientist Matt Dickinson pointed out about Trump, the likely resulting media circus with overwhelming coverage of her while her opponents are ignored could be a major asset too.

So she could win the nomination and become the 46th president. But while some people are quite enthusiastic about the idea on the internet that doesn't change the fact that it's still terrible.

Jonathan Bernstein summed up why pretty bluntly on Monday morning:
The truth is the same as always: The presidency is a real job, and a damn hard one. The easily visible parts -- the speeches and the interviews, even the moral leadership -- are a relatively small part of the responsibilities of the office. There's simply no substitute for a good grasp of public policy and government affairs.

There's also no substitute for political skills, which require training and experience, and are simply different from business skills, or cultural mastery, or the ability to perform. 
I think that's exactly right.

In other words Oprah has many admirable qualities. For example, unlike Trump she is actually a self-made billionaire overseeing a vast business empire. But that's not really that helpful when it comes to running the government. In her business role Oprah deals with staff members she can hire and fire, celebrities eager to court her favor, or vendors and corporations who'd like to strike deals with her. But she can't work that way as president because that's neither the people she'll be dealing with nor how presidents do business.

Cabinet members can't just be hired, they have to be confirmed by the Senate. Likewise bureaucrats are protected by civil service laws and their ability to thwart presidents is the stuff of Washington legend. Federal judges have lifetime appointments and can have been on the bench for decades before a new administration arrives in Washington. And members of Congress are ultimately only beholden to their own constituents and caucuses; they can tell the president to go pound sand if they want to (and frequently have throughout history). I doubt Oprah's TV show or magazines were run that way.

Good presidents are usually able to compensate for this by having lengthy experience of working in, well, politics. That is being members legislative bodies. Or finding the levers of power and influence in bureaucracies. Or learning how to turn a political opponent into an ally or when an ally ultimately is more trouble than they're worth. Oprah has a lot of experience in life but as far as I can tell little in this vein.

Likewise there's not a whole lot of evidence that Oprah knows much, or is interested much, in the finer aspects of public policy. I don't mean this as a putdown, few people do know this stuff, but it's really important for a president to know it to be able to do things like bargain or oversee a White House able to craft politically and practically viable ways for tackling problems.

I mean honestly, what does Oprah (or anyone) really know about foreign trade, tax policy, climate change projections, the power grid, solar energy, driver-less cars, fracking, early childhood education, decommissioning nuclear plants, monetary policy, agriculture, changes in health care cost inflation, changes in workforce participation, mass transit, the 2020 Census, charter schools, the Social Security Trust Fund, student loan debt, waste water treatment, disaster management, an aging federal workforce, court reform, cloud computing, flood prevention, treaties with Native American Tribes, potential earthquakes, deforestation, or any other number of domestic non-military policy issues?

Now Oprah is by all accounts an intelligent and driven woman so she can (hopefully) learn this stuff especially with the help of good advisors, but one thing that should be clear to everyone over the last 12 months is the presidency is "no place for amateurs" as a smart people have long said, and on the job training has some very real downsides. And that's not mentioning her unfortunate tendencies to promote quacks, at least when it comes to health care "policy" as it were, which is something the president has to deal with as well.

Moreover there's not a whole lot of evidence she's that interested in foreign affairs or how to be a good commander in chief, which is fine for a celebrity. Most people and many politicians don't know about these things, but this is also huge parts of the job as well. It's one thing to interview the nicest man on the planet his Holiness the Dahlia Lama, it's another to deal with the Syrian Civil War.

All of which isn't to say I don't understand Oprah's appeal. It would be nice to have a president who isn't a horrible person like Donald Trump and does something to empathize charity, honesty, and empathy in public life. These are good things. But I'm fairly confident that candidate or president Oprah wouldn't be a very good vessel for transmitting these ideal across American society, because she wouldn't be "Oprah" anymore, she'd be another politician. In other words, Oprah right now is a popular celebrity, but once upon a time the Hillary Clinton who had left politics had approval ratings of 65% or so. Things changed once she ran for president, and the those same powerful forces could change Oprah's standing relatively quickly as well.

It's important to note that I could be wrong, I was dead wrong about Trump winning the Republican nomination after all, and Oprah might be able to rise above these challenges and be a good president. But it's a crazy gamble to take in my opinion. A politician who's spent a career seeking the White House has strong institutional incentives to do the things necessary to win the nomination and lead a functional administration (at least in theory) to craft a politics that "works" at least to some degree. With Oprah (or Ric Flair, or Ross Perot, or Waka Flocka Flame) there's no institutional reason to believe this at all, and if Democrats are going to just trust "their gut" or whatever they might as well just select nominees by lot.

The good news is the Democratic Party doesn't suffer from the same level of dysfunction as the GOP. Their party's groups and actors care a lot about creating viable policy and I suspect (hope?) are as skeptical of choosing a celebrity and political amateur as me. Likewise while the foolish progressive push to reduce the number of superdelegates is going forward there still will be some (and hopefully the DNC will just junk the idea of reducing them due to the threat of Oprah) to help coordinate party support and act as an important backstop if necessary. Likewise the Democrats have state-wide proportional representation rules in their delegate allocation which means Oprah would have to win a majority of votes to win a majority of delegates. Not the plurality of votes that gave Trump a majority of delegates due to GOP winner take all and winner take most rules. Add in the fact that it seems highly unlikely Oprah would want to subject herself to the awfulness that is running for president in order get the most demanding and stressful job in the world, and I'm pretty confident we'll be okay.

But sadly I'm a lot less confident than I would have been a week ago that the Democrats would emulate the Republicans and go with a inexperience celebrity candidate in 2020 rather than Harris, Booker, Warren, O'Malley, Kaine, Gillibrand, Patrick or any number of other qualified nominees who'd make fine presidents in my eyes. Especially due to the enthusiasm many progressive figures seem to have towards the whole idea.

And I think this says something damning about where the progressive movement is. The political media has strong economic and normative incentives to support crazy celebrity candidacies for the presidency. Trump may be hated by most journalists but he's been a boon for newspapers. But it's quite unsettling to see many people who purport to care about things like health care reform or climate change policy get interested in someone who'd be poorly equipped to persue change in these  areas if they did get in the White House for reasons as yet unexplained.

Thomas Chatterton Williams put it recently in an aptly titled column, "Oprah, Don't Do It":
In a way, the conversation of the left (and the anti-Trump right) around Ms. Winfrey is more troubling than the emotional immaturity and anti-intellectualism pulsing out of the red states that elected Mr. Trump. Those voters have long defined themselves in opposition to the intellectual seriousness Democrats purport to personify...

The idea that the presidency should become just another prize for celebrities--even the ones with whose politics we imagine we agree--is dangerous in the extreme. If the first year of the Trump administration has made anything clear, it's that experience, knowledge, education, and political wisdom matter tremendously...The presidency is not a reality show, or for that matter, a talk show.
I get that people, especially progressives, are angry. I get that people distrust institutions. I get that people hate politics these days. But while Oprah is the answer to many things, she is not the answer to your political prayers.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Ambition In Politics Is Good: Kirsten Gillibrand Edition

While most of the political media is currently going bananas over Michael Wolff's new tell all book about Trump's first year, a columnist named Ciro Scotti at The Daily Beast decided to mix things up and write about possible 2020 Democratic presidential nominee Kirsten Gillibrand instead.

This is a good idea, at least on paper. After all the Democratic Party seems to still control it's presidential nomination (well at least in theory) and so the crucial "invisible primary" stage of the process has been underway about 5 am November 9th, 2016. And a lot has already happened! Obscure but important changes have happened to the delegate selection process with some states switching to primaries and California moving the date of theirs up. Likewise a number of behind the scenes political battles have already been fought. With the "progressive/Sanders" (or whatever you want to call them) wing winning in their foolish quest to reduce the number of "superdelegates" while losing the larger war to the "establishment/regular/not-Bernie" (or whatever you want to call it) wing when it comes to more radical changes  to the nominations process and control of the formal Democratic National Committee itself.

Likewise some candidates, like Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, or Martin O'Malley are obviously doing the sorts of thing you do when you are signaling to the "expanded party network" that you are running while not formally declaring.

So it makes sense to talk about Kirsten Gillibrand and 2020. She's in the spotlight more and more after the Franken Fiasco and she hasn't given a Shermanesque refusal, so as far as I can tell she's in the hunt for 2020, which of course doesn't mean she'll be running in 2020. 

Unfortunately instead of saying something interesting about Gillibrand, we got, well this sort of dreck:
The larger question about Gillibrand, though, is whether she is too transparently opportunistic to be a viable candidate after the rejection of another New York politician criticized for basing her positions on supposedly canny calculations rather than on from-the-gut convictions.
...
For Gillibrand, nearly every move seems to be a self-serving playing of the angles. While it’s not surprising to see a politician behave this way, Gillibrand seems to be an especially egregious practitioner of the finger-in-the-wind politics that so many voters can no longer abide. 
This is of course the sort of sexist double standard that often gets applied to women in politics. The  state senator with the funny name using his chance to address the Democratic Convention back in 2004 as a way to introduce himself to the nation and showcase himself to his party as a man to watch in case John Kerry couldn't pull it off wasn't being "transparently opportunistic." No, no, no. Likewise FDR wasn't being "transparently opportunistic" when he used his nomination speech for Al Smith at the 1924 Democratic Convention to re-enter political life and set himself up for replacing Smith as governor four years later. And Abraham Lincoln wasn't being "opportunistic" when he auditioned for the position of "guy other than Seward" to a bunch of anti-Seward party bosses by giving his famous speech at Cooper Union. Likewise his whirlwind speaking tour of New England afterwards was not part of "opportunistic" strategy of winning delegates for the upcoming convention in Chicago.

I apologize for the sarcasm, but the claim that "she's not qualified because she wants the job" is pretty frustrating after years of seeing it over and over again with Hillary Clinton's run for the White House in particular or the ongoing push to silence her since.

Moreover it gets how our political system works exactly backwards. Our political system is one that is based on the idea that politicians are going to be "opportunistic" in that they'll be driven by ambition, and so we might as well harness that ambition to serve both as a check on other politicians, as well as a way to drive politics forward. As Jonathan Bernstein put it back in the day:
You remember what Madison says in Federalist 51: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” The constitution, with its separated institutions sharing powers and federalism, depends on the self-interest of politicians to work. If our politicians were altruists, we’d really be in trouble; they’d be eaten alive, either by the remaining ambitious ones, or by the various and many self-interested folks outside of government. So we expect, and probably need, politicians who have a more-than-normally-healthy amount of drive, self-interest, and ambition.
(See also here and here).

Don't get me wrong. There are political systems where ambition can be a real problem (which is why K'mpec makes Picard Arbiter of Succession!) and there is a very real human cost to our ambition focused political system, but then again it's the system we're kind of stuck with. Gillibrand's "opportunistic" ambition will serve her well if she makes it to Iowa, and the ambitious pursuit of being a successful president would serve her well in the White House as well.
 

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Neoliberalism: Still An Unhelpful Word

Recently Ta-Nehisi Coates decided to delete his Twitter account after his fellow big time public intellectual Cornell West denounced him as a "neoliberal" in a angry rant published by The Guardian. I'll leave blogging about this whole kerfuffle for a latter date, but it did spark up some discussion about one of my own favorite hobbyhorses. That is how the term "neoliberalism" isn't a very helpful political descriptor.

The problem in my mind isn't so much Jonathan Chait's view that "neoliberalism" has been become a catchall insult for people on "the left" who get annoyed at conventional liberals like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, although it certainly is used that way an awful lot these days. Rather it's that the term itself has so many different meanings it's just not a helpful thing to say.

Illustrating the problem recently was a long post by The Roosevelt Institution's Mike Konczal, updated to reflect the whole Coates vs West fight, arguing that "Neoliberalism isn't an empty epithet. It's a real, powerful set of ideas." To begin with I think Konczal kind of reinforces my point about the word being hopelessly vague due to its plethora of meanings when he tells us that it means three pretty different things. He breaks these definitions down as:
  • "In political circles, it’s most commonly used to refer to a successful attempt to move the Democratic Party to the center in the aftermath of conservative victories in the 1980s."
  • "In economic circles, however, “neoliberalism” is most identified with an elite response to the economic crises of the 1970s...These policies included reduction of top marginal tax rates, the liberalization of trade, privatization of government services, and deregulation.
  • "The third meaning of “neoliberalism,” most often used in academic circles, encompasses market supremacy — or the extension of markets or market-like logic to more and more spheres of life." 
The third point here strikes me as being totally unrelated to the first two and personally I think we already have a good term for talking about this in academic circles. The second point may be right about the so called "Washington Consensus", at least in terms of policy prescriptions written by foreign policy types in Washington for Latin America in the last three decades of the 20th Century, but it's not very relevant now as most governments in Latin America abandoned it a while ago and embarked on a path of what you might call "leftist populism". Some of which has kind of worked, some of which hasn't.

As Jonathan Chait pointed on on twitter though the second point hardly describes the politics of so called "neoliberals" like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. After all both Obama and Clinton presided over tax rates going up on the rich not down. Bill Clinton did support some deregulation of Wall Street yes, but Obama made tightening regulation of the finance industry a major focus on his presidency. People like Konczal might argue he didn't go far enough, but the Dodd-Frank act was a real thing and certainly no "deregulation." I'm not aware of any major "privatization of government services" going on under either administration either. And sorry but "free trade" has been the mainstream Democratic position for a pretty long time indeed.

So what about the first point? To be blunt the evidence Konczal rolls out to back up the idea that there was, "...a successful attempt to move the Democratic Party to the center in the aftermath of conservative victories in the 1980s" is pretty weak. He cities a number of books and articles by various public intellectuals who wrote about Democratic politics in that era, but there's little evidence theses sorts of articles-takes as we'd call them today-drove policy in the Clinton White House or the 101st Congress. Public intellectuals love to exaggerate the role of their fellow public intellectuals in politics, but someone like Sam Nunn was probably more important to politcs in the early Clinton years than anything Charlie Peters ever wrote. 

Likewise Konczal constantly goes back to changes to the 1992 Democratic Party Platform as an example of this "move to the center". But this is pretty weak evidence too. Back when political conventions where actual deliberative events where parties made choices, platforms were an important way for party factions to fight out differences, cut deals, and arrive at consensus. But for a long time now conventions have basically been just four day long infomercials where parties showcase themselves and their nominees to voters. This is why celebrities keep popping up in them, not forge a new policy on international trade or health care reform, but to try and keep things interesting between the boring politicians who want to yammer on about those things.

Moreover if you take a broader look at American politics than one focused on the Clinton White House, obscure articles in policy journals, and convention platforms you see a very different picture. Let's just focus on 1988, a year Knoczal seems to think is key to this "move to the center." In the House you have the Democrats led by Speaker Jim Wright, who was something of a moderate. By year's end he has to resign as is replaced by his more liberal deputy Tom Foley. The Democrats go into the minority after their 1994 shellacking and pick noted longtime friend of organized labor Dick Gephardt as their leader (here's Dick on free trade when he ran president back in 1988, he doesn't sound very "neoliberal" to me) and he's ultimately replaced by Nancy Pelosi, probably the most liberal Speaker in history. That's not a "shift to the center" at all, it's pretty clearly march "to the left" ie a more liberal Democratic Party.

Does Wright represent the crucial shift to "the center" then? Well he was more of a moderate than his predecessor Tip O'Neill, but then again he came to congress in 1955 and his politics were heavily linked to the New Deal. Likewise his tenure as Speaker of the 100th Congress was largely defined by passing big infrastructure bills over Reagan's veto, fending off attempts to cut the non-defense parts of the Federal budget, and working to end some of the Reagan Administration's proxy wars in Central America. That doesn't sound like what Knoczal calls "neoliberalism" at all.

And O'Neill didn't exactly come from a long line of committed liberals either. O'Neill's predecessor was Carl Albert who championed Medicare in Congress, but was something of a moderate who also chaired the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, (which had a platform that did have a plank about full employment in it but also wasn't exactly something liberals look back fondly on). His predecessor as Speaker was John McCormick who was a big fan of the Great Society yes, but was basically forced into retirement by liberals furious at his refusal to confront Johnson over the war in Vietnam and who once killed a bill to provide more Federal aide to schools by demanding it include funding for Catholic schools as well, that doesn't sound that liberal these days. If you want to go back further you get Sam Rayburn who's a good guy in a lot of ways but not exactly high on the list of liberal political heroes today either.

How about the Senate? Well in 1988 you have Mr. Blue Dog Democrat himself in the form of Robert Byrd as majority leader, who replaced by George Mitchell in 1989 in no small part because he was too conservative in the eyes of his more liberal caucus. Mitchell is followed Tom Daschle who is followed by Harry Reid who is in turn followed by Chuck Schumer, all of which are pretty conventional liberals.

And if anything the changes among the Democratic membership in Congress were even bigger than the leadership changes over the years. Reagan was able to get his tax cuts through in no small part because of conservative Democratic representatives from the South who styled themselves as Boll Weevils getting on board, there's pretty much no comparison to them in this day and age. Likewise in the Senate conservative Democrats like Richard Shelby and Ben Nighthorse Campbell quite literally switched parties in the 90's and became Republicans. Sounds like a more liberal Democratic Party to me.

The thing here to remember is that this is about a lot more than Mike Konczal being wrong about the history of the Democratic Party (although I think he pretty much is). Or the the fact that some people on the internet come up with a multitude of definitions for a word and then throw it around as an epithet (although people clearly do that with "neoliberalism"). It's about where the "the left" is going to go during this Age of Trump we are in. A "Unified Theory of the Democratic Party" based on made up never was history and the idea that some liberals (oftentimes it seems like basically all liberals) must be denounced for betrayals that never happened doesn't strike me as a firm foundation to build a functional and effective "left" political movement.

Let's put this another way. Imagine the alternative history where Bill Clinton imploded after the Jennifer Flowers presser in the fall of 1991 (seems to be a scenario folks like Konczal would have liked). Bob Kerrey becomes the Democratic nominee and thus president due to the 1991-92 recession. In this universe does anyone really think the profound forces of global capitalism and technological change that have driven the things Konczal talks about have been abated? Or would Jacobin Magazine on Earth Two be cranking out articles about how Bob Kerrey betrayed liberalism forever after he negotiated a welfare reform package with Newt Gingrich rather than do nothing and risk a bipartisan veto override of a bill he'd had no influence in crafting? If the 1992 Democratic Platform under Kerrey had included a sentence on why full employment is good how different would our political economy really be?

Basically I see two sort of "lefts" when the charges of "neoliberalism" start getting thrown about. One is the "left" of Konczal that might be wrong about things in my view, but at least realizes there's probably a better way to talk about this stuff. As he puts it in his piece, "Whenever I find myself reaching for “neoliberalism,” I look for a different phrase, simply because it will better communicate what I’m trying to convey." This is the "left" that has something valuable to say and might be even be able to offer some constructive criticism for us liberals or the Democratic Party at large.

But there's the other "left" I see when charges of "neoliberalism" start flying. This is the left that tells us there is "no difference" between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, that declares a nomination contest "rigged" every time people disagree with them, that seems to have already written off a possible Kamala Harris presidency, that screams bloody murder when a politician behaves in a political manner, that blames everything bad in politics on liberals, that will never ever take yes for an answer and will always find a reason to justify their own self-destructive actions.

In other words the left politics that take the form of a bitter old man who's own left-wing anti-Obama intellectual allies think jumped the shark a while ago bellowing that once Ta-Nehisi Coates has been destroyed, the road to socialism will be open.

I would prefer the former "left", but when I see charges of "neoliberalism" thrown around I feel like I see a lot of the later. Either way it's not a very helpful term.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Thoughts On The Franken Fiasco

Well that just happened.

I'll start by saying I'm coming at this whole thing from a different angle than a lot of the progressives who have been writing about it both here in Minnesota and the rest of the country.

I actually was never a really big Franken fan.

Back in the good ole days of 2008 I actually worked on this guy's campaign who ran against him. I did so under the theory that while Franken was a funny comedian and wrote some fun political books his background (he'd said a lot of offensive stuff over the years, he hadn't lived in the state for several decades etc)  as well as the nature of Minnesotan culture (see here for a good explanation of what "Minnesota Nice" is) meant he would be a weak candidate in a general election. I also thought that he didn't have the skill set to be a good Senator. And really needed a job, so off we went!

It didn't work. The Ciresi campaign was a bit of it's own mini-fiasco, while Franken ran a great  campaign headed by some serious political talent, the backing of major national money, and an army of progressive volunteers in support. Wisely the Franken camp had a multi-year long major wooing effort with Democratic-Farmer-Labor (the state Democratic Party in Minnesota) activists and other party actors to lock up their support long before I got involved. And since Minnesota has a caucus/convention process with an endorsement that still means a lot in the spring before the August primary, me and my clipboard just wasn't enough to turn back the Franken tide.

But even if I was stupid to try and stop him back then, on my first point I was obviously correct. Despite spending a eye-popping amount of money Franken only won by the narrowest of margins during one of the biggest Democratic banner years in recent times. In other words he was a weak candidate. On the second point up until a few weeks ago I'd say I was somewhat wrong. Franken is no Hubert Humphrey or Howard Baker but he did get a few good amendments in on some important issues over the years.  See Ian Millhser for the most optimistic read of Franken's legislative record, as well as a more pessimistic read on his ultimate legacy. But then again the last three weeks are...uh...kind of important so I guess I was right on those lines too. Good for me!

If I had to pick an Senatorial analogy for Franken I'd go with Gary Hart, that is a campaign showhorse who drew a lot of media attention over the years but didn't have that big an impact when it comes to legislating and ultimately blew himself up in a truly epic fashion.

But he did cast some crucial votes over the years for things I care about, and I grew to find he had a sort of quirky charm so it's not all bad, I guess. Anyway your mileage may vary.

Personally I'm not that interested in discussing the things he's have alleged to have done. It's not that I don't have opinions, I do, it's just I'd prefer to leave it to others to talk about that. I'd rather talk about the politics, especially since I think there's a major flaw in a lot of discussion surrounding the Democrats' response to this. So let's do that.

I personally think the Democrats did the right thing here morally and in some ways practically, there's really no way he could do the job of representing Minnesota considering the position he had placed himself in. Moreover it's pretty clear that his caucus in the Senate wanted to get rid of him, he didn't want to go quietly, and so he had to be shoved. You might think that was right or wrong, but it's seems to be what happened. In other words the Democrats decided to "Take A Stand", especially considering the cultural moment we are in.

And it's this "Stand Taking" that I want to talk about. Because while I agree Democrats are doing the right thing here, I think a lot of pundits, journalists, and other people are dead wrong arguing that is the "smart move politically."

Nate Silver gave a great example of this line of thought during a recent chat with folks at his 538 digs:
micah [Cohen]: Wait, so imagine a world where Democrats have forced out both Franken and Conyers. Is the party better off in that world?
I’m trying to get at whether the moral high ground is important politically? Whether message coherence matters, basically.
harry [Enten]: I don’t think they’re worse off.
natesilver: I think Democrats made a political mistake, yes.
micah: Nate, you’re not explaining how the mistake hurts them.
natesilver: Because they look like fucking hypocrites, that’s how.
Silver later elaborates his point this way.
natesilver: For one thing, Micah, the Democrats are supposed to be the “woke” party on treatment of women (and good for them). So they look more hypocritical if one of their members abuses or harasses women, in somewhat the same way that an anti-gay-marriage Republican would look more hypocritical than a liberal (ostensibly straight) Democrat if they had a gay affair.
I personally think hypocrisy is a pretty overrated political sin. And to be fair Nate wrote a follow up piece after Franken resigned arguing this will pay off for the Democrats as they no longer look like "fucking hypocrites Micah", and who knows, maybe he's right! But his "too little, too late" tone shows that it will be pretty easy for Republicans to make that argument, or "what about Bill Clinton!" as a effective defense as well.

Or just shrug or shout "You are fake news!" when asked questions about these sorts of things. Seemed to work for Trump around the Access Hollywood tape after all.

Likewise at Vox Dara Lind updated a post she wrote slamming the Democrats for not organizing their plan to make Franken resign and avoid a potential Shirley Sherrod type set up quicker (well she doesn't phrase it like that) to argue that now that now that they have done the right thing, Democrats will be handsomely rewarded. As she puts it:
It’s easy to see this as an act of shortsighted martyrdom: losing power by adhering to your ideals, winning a moral victory while losing the war. But that’s not actually how it works.

The Democratic Party isn’t just attracted to the idea of “the resistance” out of idealism. It’s attracted because that ideal — and the backlash against serial harassers in the post-Weinstein era (to the extent that the two are even different from each other to begin with) — reflects a new energy among certain groups of people (especially middle-aged suburban women of all races) that can be channeled into Democratic politics.
Don't get me wrong, I really hope Silver and Lind are right here. But the bitter reality of my experience is that the political gods don't in fact punish the wicked and reward the righteous. After all just two days after Nate assured us the Democrats where making the right call politically his own website published an article about how it's quite possible the Democrats will lose Franken's seat in the special election that will happen next fall. Sure 2018 is looking to be a good year for Democrats overall, but there will probably be a contested endorsement process (with lots of angry party activists who were the key to Franken winning back in 2008 just looking for someone to take it out on) or maybe even a bitter fight all summer long before the August primary. Add in that in terms of statewide politics Minnesota basically a purple state and Tim Pawlenty the popular former governor could be the GOP pick and, yeah, I'm still waiting for that handsome reward from Nate.

Likewise while I hope Lind's theory that an army of suburban women materializes to come save us here in Minnesota now that we are facing a pretty crazy election next year is right, I have my doubts. I mean, I'll look for them at the environmental event I'm going to tomorrow in the suburbs (yes I am actually going to an event), and maybe they will show up! But then again maybe not. Or maybe they'll start fighting with each other about who the next Senator should be.

But it's not just the fact that Silver, Lind, and others of the "chutes and ladders" school of "Taking A Stand" are wrong about political costs, although I think they are, in my opinion it's unfortunately actually worse than this. In a way they are, whatever their good intentions, peddling a bit of a con. It reminds me a bit of dieters who try some new fad diet for a few weeks, get frustrated when it doesn't work, and just give up. They end up in a worse spot because now they think there's no possible way they'll ever be able to lose weight (I tried the diet! It didn't work!) and might as well just not bother trying. The truth is that they'd have been much better off if they went in with both eyes open, and admitted it would be a long and at times difficult process, but ultimately worth it because they would be glad for any number of reasons down the line.

In other words, Roy Moore might win, the Democrats might lose Franken's seat, Ruth Bader Ginsberg might get replaced by a conservative, and Donald Trump like most modern presidents might win reelection. After all returning Harvey Weinstein's money, as many progressive writers assured us the Democrats simply had to do or they'd never win another election again, was rewarded by the RNC getting back into the Alabama race. While Ralph Northam's decision to take wishy-washy position on issues important to progressives like immigration, which lots of progressive writers assured us would mean he'd lose, resulted in the punishment of wining in a landslide.  Likewise the decision to dump John Conyers, while the right call in my book, was rewarded by the Republican Governor of Michigan deciding that much of Detroit just doesn't get to be represented in the House until next November.

It's not that crazy to imagine a Democratic Party that after a few years of constantly being told they will be richly rewarded for "doing the right thing" and instead getting things like Senators Moore and Pawlenty voting to privatize Medicare, getting so frustrated they decide like the GOP in 2016 that winning is more important than any precious moral principles and acting accordingly. I think something similar happened in the 90s where liberals and Democrats got so fed up with the never ending stream of made up "scandals", the double standards, and lost elections a lot of them decided they just didn't care what happened when a legitimate scandal rolled around. I was just a kid but I sure didn't, and quite frankly I'm pretty "meh" about it to this day. Or feel free to ask James Carville about what's really at stake.

Doing the right thing is often times not the easiest thing in the world of politics, especially when the other side decides to turn that into yet another way to put you at an institutional disadvantage, after all if it was easy I'd be out of a job because nobody would be screwing up the environment in the first place! And despite claims otherwise doing the right thing can have real costs associated with it, (see noted political theorist Jimmy McNulty for more on this). Trying to wish these these hard truths away in the end doesn't really help anyone. I think (hope?) that doing the right thing now will pay off in the long term, maybe not at the ballot box but in functional political party that can get things done when it gets back in power. But this might not be true. Either way we'd be better off if people who thought Democrats should make real sacrifices on issues they care about like choice, health care, the environment, or taxes because establishing new norms around sexual harassment is worth it just came out and said that. At least then we could have an honest debate about trade offs and where lines should be drawn. And to be blunt ignoring these hard truths is making things worse.