Saturday, September 8, 2018

Handicapping the Democratic Field

Here's a fun topic to distract us the various constitutional crises going on in Washington DC: how's 2020 shaping up?

There are a lot of ways to approach this question, but I like the method Matt Ygleisas, Laura McGann, and Dylan Mathews took in Vox recently where they looked at this question by saying who'd they "buy" (they're underrated) and "sell" (they're overrated) on the PredictIt betting website.

As I see it the Voxers, who are smart people who work for a good website, are a bit off to begin with when they announce, "It’s obviously way too early for anyone to have a realistic sense of who is going to prevail in Democrats’ large field of 2020 presidential candidates..." Sure, in the Age of Trump who really knows what will happen, but we can already draw some conclusions.

I don't know what to tell you about the Republicans these days, but in the Democratic Party it appears that party actors are still important and the "invisible primary" has been underway for quite some time. Indeed the gigantic Democratic Field has already been winnowed twice by my count with Jason Kander deciding to run for mayor of Kansas City instead of president, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo basically bowing out of 2020 who with his "only caveat" which I'd say is a pretty Shermanesque statement.

In other words the Voxers are right about it being hard to pick the winner, but there's already a lot of ground to cover. My position is to sell Bernie and Biden and buy Martin O'Malley and Montana Governor Steve Bullock (this sounds insane I know but it'll make sense).

To make things simpler let's just go through by candidate as the Voxers rate them and I'll say what they get right and wrong:
  • New York Governor Andrew Cuomo: Matt says sell. Makes sense due to him basically bowing out already.
  • Washington Governor Jay Inslee: Matt says buy, makes sense, and please see my crazy O'Malley/Bullock theory outlined below.
  • Joe Biden: McGann says time to sell. I agree, sell sell sell! But her analysis is all wrong. Biden's problem, and it's been basically the same thing since he decided to run for president sometime around 9:45 pm eastern on November 6th, 1984 is that the party loves him, just not for the top spot. McGann focuses on various "scandals" and gaffes to explain Biden's defeat that strike me as fairly similar to "But emails!" claims about Hillary Clinton. Likewise Biden's often bashed by younger liberal journalists like, well Matt Ygleisas about his length and "problematic" record. Which makes sense! Again the Democratic Party and politics in general have changed a lot since his shocking upset win against J. Caleb Boggs back in 1972. But that doesn't mean he;s not without his charms (progressive Vox journalists might hate him, but I love him, and yeah I saw him speak in person in a small room, it was amazing, shut up, you weren't there!) and a certain type of voter loves the man, but that same piece points out that Biden is going to "make a decision" about running around Christmas. Which means the man who ran for 30 years could give up the ghost. Or he could charge ahead and that would be a world in which in the invisible primary where, "What's left of his New Hampshire network, for instance, is fragmented, aging and undecided heading into 2020." Anyway feel free to sell.
  • Tim Kaine: McGann claims Kaine is "a good buy at 2 cents" my response is, really? Don't get me wrong he could have been a incredibly formidable candidate but he's done none of the things you do when running for president. This tells me he doesn't want it and like's being a senator, so 2 cents is probably a bit much at this point. You can't win if you don't play!
  • Kamala Harris: Matthews says sell, and I agree that 22 cents is way to high, instead put her in the middle of the pack with Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand around 10 cents or so. But note that Matthews' analysis is still bad. Matthews argues that Harris, "...will face a challenge winning over Black Lives Matter activists, #AbolishICE proponents, and other voters critical of mass incarceration and police brutality." and goes on to criticize her for a bunch of other things. I think this gets the Democratic Party wrong on a number of levels. To begin with the Black Lives Matter Movement isn't really part of Democratic party politics (and they have stated that!) and itself is an composed of a whole bunch of groups with all sorts of differences that would find backing, or not backing, a candidate for president difficult for a number of reasons. Likewise #AbolishICE is a vague slogan that in my conversations seems to mean everything from "America shouldn't have immigration laws" to "Make the INS great again" so that's a loophole Harris can drive her Chevy Impala through at top speed  Moreover there's a Yuge problem with party actors not being able to dismiss someone without an alternative. If you're a progressive journalist or voter who dislikes Harris you can just shout "dealbreaker!" about this or that. But if you're a party actor you kind of have to pick an alternative or be like much of the GOP in 2015-16 and remain paralyzed while disaster strikes. In other words you can say "Kamala Harris' stance on transgender rights in prison is simply unacceptable, I can't support her." And if you can't come up with who you'll back then I can barge in on your fun party, rip the mic out of your hand and shout "Which is why we are caucusing for Steve Bullock for President baby! WHOOOOO!" Is that what you want? Well no, but that's kind of the way this works.
  • Bernie Sanders: I know people who read this will get annoyed, but yes sell. There's the obvious points that Sanders isn't a Democrat (problem!) and would be 81 years old in January of 2021 (also problem!). But let's just go through Matthews' points line by line: 
    • "He tied in Iowa last time, and there’s no regional candidate who would obviously be stronger than him there." See my Bullock post below, also the idea that "because I did good in Iowa before I'll do it again!" Isn't backed up by historical data. Once upon a time Dick Gephardt won Iowa in a shocker. Doesn't tell you what the future is. 
    • "He won New Hampshire in a blowout, and even against fellow New Englander Elizabeth Warren, he’s in a strong position to do the same again." This is just silly writing. New Hampshire voters are notoriously fickle and love to ask "What have you done for me lately?" of their candidates. This afterall was the state where Bill Clinton becomes "the come back kid." Where Hillary seems on the ropes and then "found her voice", where they apparently they love John McCain, and Donald Trump, and George Herbert Walker Bush, but not this son. That is to say New Hampshire voters winnow, but they all the over the map when it comes time to pick, and Dylan's theory about them being ruled by ideology or "local appeal" strikes me as nonsense. 
    • "It’s common for parties to choose runners-up as their nominees the next time around (as Sanders learned when he lost to Clinton)." Barack Obama, John Kerry, Al Gore, Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale all stare at you and say "That's not how this works, that's not how any of this works."
    • "He’s the genuine article in a field of imitators. If you’re a nurse in Iowa, would you rather go with someone who’s supported single-payer health care his whole life, like Sanders, or someone who signed on last year, like Booker, Gillibrand, Harris, or Warren?" This strikes me as being profoundly off base. Matthews sees a world filled with voters, caucus goers, and party actors deeply committed to ideological stances. I get that, it's a way for a "politics journalist" to think about the world, but it strikes me as missing a lot of how American party politics works. Maybe the nurse in Iowa has changed her mind, or thinks that since Bernie and Deval Patrick both support Medicare for All she'll go with Patrick because Bernie is old and Patrick is fun. Likewise maybe you've just had enough of Trump's misogyny and despite your ideological commitments you throw caution to then wind and back this woman Gillibrand because, well, what she said about Trump and women at the first debate, you can't top that.
  • I'll add in that there are often claims about Bernie's powerful "organization" that he'll be able to activate for 2020. I really don't see it. Like Gary Hart, a lot of his support wasn't from people committed to his ideology or values, but rather people who disliked a party status quo. After all nobody is more Mr. Status Quo than Walter Mondale, or Ms. Status Quo that Hillary Rodham Clinton. Likewise Bernie Sanders' support in the 2016 cycle was largely about identity, that is age and race, more than anything else. Thus while there might be some core of supporters committed to Bernie personally or his ideology, it's likely much of his impressive "network" is falling apart as we speak. Especially since people who want a passionate liberal New Englander who wants to fight big business can always jump on board the USS Elizabeth Warren, who also happens to be a Democrat. 
Which brings me to my crazy idea about Martin O'Malley and Steve Bullock. Most observers would look at them and see candidates that "can't win" as they are white men in a political era where the Democrats "need" to nominate a woman or racial minority. Likewise both are fairly conventional liberals in a time when the Democrats "need" to nominate some sort of progressive.

Don't get me wrong, there will be many groups and actors pushing for things like a more liberal candidate, or nominating a woman or a racial minority. The thing to remember though is that so many candidates are running you could see how coordinating around one single candidate could be a big problem for many political actors and groups. Honestly if you want to nominate a liberal woman woman you have four strong contenders so far by my count. And indeed that's a big part of how Trump was able to win the GOP endorsement! That is so many candidates were running, few dropped out, and few wanted to take him on under the theory that he would implode allowing them to gather up his supporters. So that's were you get Jeb! spending 20 million dollars to tear down Rubio in negative ads instead of Trump. And the GOP party leaders refusing to rally around Ted Cruz (probably the most viable alternative to Trump) after Iowa because they don't like him, or would rather dither. And Kasich refusing to drop out long after it's become possible to win enough delegates for him to win thus divided the anti-Trump vote for reasons.

Could something similar happen to the Dems in 2020? Probably not, but it could, and you could see O'Malley or Bullock being able to win a "bandwagon" campaign by wining Iowa and getting tons of people to jump on board, which as Seth Masket has pointed out is basically how the not very liberal Jimmy Carter was able to win four years after George McGovern.

Will this happen? Probably not. Is there a greater that 1% chance it could? Sure.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

The Real Problem With Caucuses

Let me start this post by saying that I've long been an apologist for the dying system of caucuses as a means of picking political candidates. Part of this is probably because I'm from Minnesota, a sort of land of caucuses, where we still have a caucus system that both the DFL (Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (even our state parties have weird names)) and the Republicans put on well before elections to decide on endorsing a given candidate which historically has meant a lot. 

Part of the reason is also that caucuses reward participation, and as someone who both has strong opinions about politics and believes that we liberals need to do a lot more "doing" in politics and a lot less complaining about it on the internet, wasting a Tuesday night, or even a whole Saturday, in some school gym has a sort of stoic appeal. As my Methodist grandmother might have said, "Suffering in caucuses is good, it builds character."

The case against caucuses is well known and you can expect to see it trotted out the closer we get to Iowa in 2020. To summarize about a gazillion op-eds and blog posts: caucuses are deeply unfair as they are hard for many to access, few people participate in them relative to a given electorate, and they are rarely if ever representative of a given population they are suppose to represent. People making this case some time jazz things up by declaring them "racist" or "classist" or "elitist" or some other "ist" but the arguments are usually pretty similar.

The old me that use to defend this strange system would have replied something like, "That's a fair description but it's also kind of irrelevant." The reason? Political parties are private organizations, not creatures of the state and so how they chose to endorse and nominate candidates should be left up to them. The same way there shouldn't be some law declaring that every registered voter should be able to have a voice in what the Black Lives Matter movement chooses to do, even though that is essentially what "open primaries" allow for political parties.

Moreover there are benefits to the caucus system (in theory). They reward participation so people who are willing to work hard, say by building up good will in a precinct or bringing a bunch of friends to the caucus and having them help make you a delegate to the next level, get that much more say because they are that much more committed to advancing the goals and doing the work of the party. The same way a committed Black Lives Matters activist should have more say in what they chose to do than a random white guy named longwalk who doesn't participate in the movement at all.

In addition, caucusing (again in theory) is cool because it is a rare example in modern life where you, an ordinary citizen can have real power. In a primary you are just yet another random voter who's vote will almost certainly not change the outcome of an election even in a town of thousands. Let alone a state of 5.5 million people. But caucuses are different, in caucuses you have power. 

You'll probably never believe me but I really did once have a state representative come to my door to ask for my support because I was a delegate. Likewise I once really did have a member of Congress once ask for my personal support for a candidate at a senate district convention. In a primary system you go to the candidate rally to shake their hand, they don't come to you. If you're a delegate in a caucus system it's different.

Meanwhile supporters of primaries often just ignore that system's very real shortcomings. The biggest example of this can be found in the 45th President of the United States who's take over of the party of Lincoln was caused in no small part by saturation media coverage because he was so "interesting" as a candidate. In most other democracies, and in most of American history, party leaders would never chose a know nothing reality show host to lead their party both for electoral reasons, but also because that person should never be put in charge of the party or the country. But here in the US in our post McGovern–Fraser "better" more "democratic" primary based presidential nomination system the voters, in their infinite fucking wisdom, decided to go with reality show host. 

Likewise the fans of primaries arguments about "democracy" often don't hold up under scrutiny. As political scientists Julia Azari and Seth Masket put it in an excellent op-ed in the New York Times "democracy" inside political parties isn't a very helpful standard as parties by definition involve a balancing act between leaders of different sorts and rank and file members:
Part of the problem for parties is our insistence that they be run democratically. That turns out not to be a very realistic concept. Yes, we can hold elections within parties, but party leaders will always have vastly more information about candidates — their strengths and flaws, their ability to govern and work with Congress, their backing among various interest groups and coalitions — than voters and caucusgoers do. That information is useful, even vital, to the task of picking a good nominee. As the political scientist E. E. Schattschneider once said, democracy is to be found between the parties, not within them. 
More over the anti-caucus "democracy" and "participation" arguments don't really hold up on inspection. After all, most primary elections are pretty low turn out affairs and like caucuses turn out in primaries is often older, whiter, and wealthier of any given electoral constituency. To cite a recent example Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her recent primary win a whopping 15,897 votes, in a district with perhaps 240,000 registered voters. Does that really represent "the will of the people"? Likewise many voters in states with "open" primaries often vote in another parties's primaries than the one they'll vote for in the general election to cause trouble, or just because they think it's more fun.

So if caucusing is so great, why am I writing this post? Well, that's the thing. After participating in Minnesota's caucus process for the last 10 years I've come to see that the arguments for caucuses just don't hold up. This isn't because primaries are better, I'd argue that Donald Trump shows that primaries are actually pretty terrible. Instead what I came to see was the main problem with caucus is that they are dominated by political hobbyism.

"Political hobbyism" is a term coined by the political scientist Eitan Hersh that he laid out not to long ago in a great New York Times op-ed. As he puts it:
For years, political scientists have studied how people vote, petition, donate, protest, align with parties and take in the news, and have asked what motivates these actions. The typical answers are civic duty and self-interest.

But civic duty and self-interest do not capture the ways that middle- and upper-class Americans are engaging in politics. Now it is the Facebooker who argues with friends of friends he does not know; the news consumer who spends hours watching cable; the repeat online petitioner who demands actions like impeaching the president; the news sharer willing to spread misinformation and rumor because it feels good; the data junkie who frantically toggles between horse races in suburban Georgia and horse races in Britain and France and horse races in sports (even literal horse races).


What is really motivating this behavior is hobbyism — the regular use of free time to engage in politics as a leisure activity. Political hobbyism is everywhere.
I'd argue that this is everywhere very much includes the 2018 DFL caucus and endorsement process. Consider my experience this cycle, not from the mindset of a pro-caucus partisan talking about "grassroots democracy" or an anti-caucus person declaring it some diabolical system of "voter suppression" or elites "subverting the will of the people."

Here's my story:
  • I tramped to a school gym on a cold winter night to go to my local precinct caucus on caucus night, it was pretty good turn out, but then again I live in a very Democratic neighborhood in a very Democratic city so that's to be expected. I voted in a straw poll that wouldn't allocate any delegates and thus only counted for bragging rights. This kind of makes sense from a hobbyist standpoint, straw polls, even if meaningless, are fun.
  • Our caucus went relatively well (ie it took 2 hours) but no fist fights broke out and no pistols were drawn so that's a win (we used to have those in Minneapolis caucuses back in the 70's). Delegate allocation was done not by debating the issues or voting but by volunteering. So I got to be a delegate for my precinct to my senate district convention because I raised my hand and didn't demure when the convener asked for some to step aside as we had too many men in our delegation (we have rules about gender balance among delegations). This could be seen as a failure of the caucus idea, or just hobbyism. Some kids would hang out with us when I was on the Quiz Bowl team in high school to have fun, but wouldn't necessarily want to go to any meets on the weekend.
  • And a meet on the weekend is kind of what a senate district convention is! Basically I went to a day long convention of all those people elected as delegates from the numerous precincts in my state senate district to be elected delegates to go to the state convention. When I say "day long" I mean it took 12 hours, but it could have been worse, one convention in Minneapolis got kicked out of the building after their 14 hours ran up and had to reconvene another weekend for eight more hours. From a party standpoint this is an idiotic fiasco that needs to be addressed. But these sorts of crazy conventions are pretty regular, believe me, and from a hobbyist lens they make sense. Like your insane 18 hour Dungeons and Dragons game or LAN party in high school, the fact that it's goes on forever kind of ads to the mystique. "I survived my 12 hour convention", you could put it on a t-shirt. In fact the DFL party put something like that after the record turn out in 2008 that devolved into chaos in many parts of the state. Ah, memories. 
  • I left my convention after 8 hours (before delegates had been elected to go to the state convention) because I had other things I had to do. In other words the day was effectively a waste. Also because of having a sort of "I don't like this process, I hate this process" moment that Hersh's piece would later help me understand. But there were great moments of hobbyism. For example, an old lady at the microphone screaming at us that it wasn't okay to leave early due to her commitment to racial justice. This is a strange way to approach party politics (maybe some people only budgeted six hours for the convention?) but it makes sense as hobbyism. To put it in Dungeons and Dragons terms "You can't go home now! Your dwarven cleric is crucial to our plans to confront Theronorax is his lair!" If that's too much insert a golf metaphor about someone bailing of your own choosing.
But what about the state convention? Surely some precinct caucuses and senate district conventions are poorly run. But delegates at that level must be the most dedicated, and care deeply about the issues and electing good candidates, and thus they are ready to make the best decision they can when that's hard!

Nah, the reality was more like "hobbyism, hobbyism, hobbyism."

I wasn't there, and there are many media accounts you can read, but here's my general impression of a hobbyist fiasco. Once upon a time (ie in June) Attorney General Lori Swanson was well liked and seen as a rising star in state politics. She was on the short list for replacements for Al Franken after he resigned. 

But at the convention the DFL delegates decided to endorse a 37 year old progressive activist (who full disclosure I've met and is a good guy in a lot of ways) for reasons that have never become clear. According to some I've talked to the "buzz on the floor" of the convention was something like, "Vote for Matt Pelikan (the insurgent) to send Lori a message. We'll endorse her on the second ballot." The problem of course is he won the endorsement on the second ballot! From a party standpoint this and what followed is something of an epic disaster, but from a hobbyist standpoint it's great: we rooted for the underdog and they won, hooray.

But from a party standpoint though this was a disaster. Swanson, for reasons that remain unclear, decided to run for governor after this rebuke and after her campaign was engulfed in scandals came in third in the August primary. Meanwhile Representative Keith Ellison (my member of congress and full disclosure I worked on his 2010 campaign) jumped in to run for AG himself, leaving the DFL endorsed candidate with 10.6% of the vote for AG in the recent primary election. Meanwhile the endorsed DFL candidate for governor Erin Murphy had trouble gaining traction with voters, who remember are pretty disconnected from liberal hobbyist types like me, resulting in Congressman Tim Walz, who lost the endorsement at the state convention, wining with 41.6% of the vote compared to Murphy and Swanson. 

The hobbyism though seemed to reach a peak, at least for me. When Senator Tina Smith's name came up for endorsement. Tina is an amazing person (full disclosure I've worked for her) and when you think of a older white Boomer feminist Democrat in politics her face should pop up in your mind. She worked on a number of campaigns in the 90's, she managed Walter Mondale's crazy "Fritz Blitz" campaign in 2002 for the Senate seat that opened after then Senator Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash less that two weeks before the 2002 election, she then worked for Planned Parenthood. In government she became chief of staff to then Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak in 2006 and after that she was Governor Mark Dayton's chief of staff for four years and was then elected Lieutenant Governor in 2014. 

From a party perspective she's about as good as they come. As a DFL delegate you know she's committed to your party and knows she must value what you value right? That's how I see it it, but not to some DFL state delegates, who gave her a big victory with 74.5% of the vote for endorsement, but one out of four decided to go with someone else. Many instead went with with Richard Painter, a former member of George W. Bush's administration and a contributor with the Federalist Society who was a talking head on CNN as well. The fact that such a person could still win a significant chunk of the vote of people supposedly deeply part of the party due to advancement through the difficult caucus process seems like a indictment of the whole process in and of itself. But from a hobbyist standpoint its a great way to spend the weekend. Fight for the little guy. Let's make things interesting. Etc etc. 

I recite this story because Hersh spells out the consequences of political hobbyism in this piece so well.
....all the way down to the everyday armchair quarterback who professes that the path to political victory is through ideological purity. (In the face of a diverse and moderate country, the demand for ideological purity itself can be a symptom of hobbyism: If politics is a sport and the stakes are no higher, why not demand ideological purity if it feels good?)
That seems like the epitaph of the 2018 DFL State Convention. Especially considering how the endorsed candidates largely would lose.

I guess the question here is what is my alternative, and to be honest my answer is I don't really have one. Caucuses may no longer work but if you care about politics remaining engaged makes sense. Likewise primaries may be awful, but that's the world we are living in. 

I don't really have an answer here, other than to say that to improve our politics we need more that fights over process reform. We need to engage with politics, as messy as that is, in ways we've shied away from for a while.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

A Theory Of The Future of #NeverTrump

Here's a fun pre-Forth or July question to kick around: what's the future of the whole branch of #NeverTrump conservatism?

I'll preface my piece by saying that overall I'm still standing by my predictions from back in February looking at Trump one year in. My basic read then and now is that the theory of him becoming some sort of fascist dictator seems wrong. Instead President Governator/The Body or Berlusconi seems what were stuck with. This of course will have long term, and in my view very bad impacts, from the failure to address climate change, to trade wars, to the future of the Supreme Court. But the "tail risk" Brad DeLong identified in his post I was drawing from seem unlikely at this point.

Likewise the whole idea that Trump's election might re-scramble the whole makeup of the coalitions that makeup our political parties was popular for a while last year, but seems to have faded away. Instead, in a time of high partisanship, we are seeing a few changes around the edges of party coalitions, but they largely seem the same when it comes to big points in which Trump is a president loathed by Democrats, generally disliked by Independents, and quite popular with Republican voters.

This is of course wasn't the case back in 2016, where there was a massive revolt of conservative "thought leaders", professional writers, and other movement Janissaries against the whole idea of ever letting Trump win the GOP nomination. This was best personified in National Review's "Against Trump" issue in January of that year. There's a number of other examples, and they often rallied around the hashtag of #NeverTrump. And the label itself was a bit like the "Left" political labels of #BernieorBust or #NeverHillary, in that they stressed the idea that Trump was simply too awful for any number of reasons to ever be supported out of personal conviction.

But it didn't work, and Trump of course won the Electoral College, which leaves us with the question of what happens to the #NeverTrumpers now?

Personally I think their future, at least in terms of inside the world of Republican politics is pretty grim. As Jonathan Chait pointed out in a recent piece about new Pew survey results on the electorate much of the "anti-Trump" GOP base in the primaries, that is those voters that generally rallied around conservative stalwarts like Cruz, Jeb! Bush, or Rubio are now, well Trump's base. While his more "Trumpish" voters or whatever you want to call them are actually more skeptical of him since he's taken office:
The first, and largest [group of GOP voters], “Core Conservatives,” holds doctrinaire positions on everything. This group is “financially comfortable,” and “overwhelmingly supports smaller government, lower corporate tax rates and believes in the fairness of the nation’s economic system,” and also “express[es] a positive view of U.S. involvement in the global economy.” This is the conservatism of Paul Ryan.

Another group, “Country First Conservatives,” is “older and less educated than other Republican-leaning typology groups,” and has more populist and isolationist views. They are “highly critical of immigrants and deeply wary of U.S. global involvement,” and most likely to believe “if America is too open to people from all over the world, we risk losing our identity as a nation.”

Which of these two groups do you think registered higher support for Donald Trump? The Country First Conservatives, right? Well, no. Ninety-three percent of Core Conservatives approved of Trump’s job performance, as opposed to 84 percent of Country First Conservatives.
So now what's a #Never Trump conservative to do?

I personally see three main options for the #NeverTrump thinker, professional writer, or aspiring "thought leader" and honestly thinkthese battle lines are already being drawn and people are already taking sides.

The first group I'll call "Accepters". There's are folks that have decided to just accept Trump as their leader and charge ahead. Oh they might not love it, they might even express worries or "concerns", but they aren't going to stand in his way and will accept him as their party's leader until he's gone. People like Paul Ryan, a number of RedState bloggers, and well everyone and their mom basically are good examples of "Accepters"

The second group I'll call the "Outties", as in people who've announced they are "outtie" when it comes to contemporary GOP politics. Example of "Outties" include Senator Jeff Flake, Steve Schmidt, and some more obscure figures.

The final group I'll call the "Pretenders", that is people who are pretending that Trump isn't president, hasn't taken over the GOP, or are pretending they aren't expected to take a side. Ross Douthat scolding liberals about Sarah Huckabee Sanders' ordering at a restaurant, or a number of swing-district Republican office holders trying to simply pretend everything is the same as in 2014 or 2016 all count as "Pretenders" in my book.

I think the "Pretenders" are the important group here, as the other two groups' fates seem pretty much cast by this summer: they'll be Trump's base in 2020 or no longer be very relevant.

But what will happen to our "Pretenders"? I personally used to think they might be a bit like the Neoconservatives of the later 20th Century. These were a group of important intellectuals originally oriented with the Democratic Party and their Cold War "Hawks" who then became disillusioned with the perceived failures of the liberalism in The Sixties, especially Johnson's Great Society, the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, and the rise of more "Left" politics in that era. And so they decided to leave the Democratic Party and become Republicans after the tumultuous Sixties came to a close.

These are the folks that helped give us the Iraq War and a bunch Cold War escalation (see here and here) so they are hardly a group to emulate policy-wise in my book. But in the first months of the Trump Era I used to think they there was a possibility of something similar, but with conservatives deciding to switch teams and maybe giving up their social conservationism beliefs for a staunch defense of a free-trade and alliance based international system. Or so other grand "switcheroo".

This seems highly unlikely these days, and so instead we'll probably get these groups just playing out as is.

In other words the "Accepters" will continue with throwing in with Trump until he leaves office, after which, like George W. Bush, questions about why he happened and why his Administration was so bad will be ignored. Expect lots of posts about how president Gillibrand/Booker/Harris are being "uncivil".

"Outties" will probably simply leave the party and/or politics and never be heard from again outside of some interesting historical tomes.

And a final group of "Pretetnders", if they haven't already picked the former or latter groups outlined above, will just go with a "Uh, both sides are terrible, politics is so bad" type of framework (although likely written better). That's right, self-identified Libertarian Megan McArdle assuming a post Roe legal framework would be sensible did this the other day.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Liberal Contrarianism Explained

Recently in Democracy, Michael Bérubé, a literature professor at Penn State wrote a pretty hilarious piece about the (almost) death of what he calls "liberal contrarianism." I don't have a whole lot to say about the specifics of piece, I mean how do you agree or disagree with a fictional dialog of two different characters arguing inside one man's head? But it is quite funny.

It's also a great look back into the past, at least in terms of what people were writing in "high brow politics" magazines once upon a time and how similar and totally different that is from our own era. I especially loved the deep cut about how Reason magazine ginned up a controversy about how Dade County, Florida spent too much money installing a ADA compliant ramp to access a nude (well actually clothing optional) beach. People were outraged (or were they?), then again maybe it was just a conservative writer looking for a punch line at other people's expense. As the HIC character puts it, "Cripes. I can’t even begin to imagine anyone ridiculing access ramps today."

The conversation then goes on to address what the character ILLE calls, "liberal contrarianism", like from the old joke that a liberal is someone who won't take their own side in a fight, that sort of thing:
You know where I’m going with this. As the age of the liberal contrarian reaches maturity in mid-decade, Andrew Sullivan is hawking The Bell Curve at The New Republic, by then known as “even the liberal New Republic.” A few years later, Michael Kelly, having spent his time at TNR fulminating against the liberal hegemony of Heather Has Two Mommies, takes over The Atlantic. Camille Paglia is ubiquitous. Slate emerges as the West Coast, online TNR, and within a few years, the #Slatepitch becomes shorthand for the liberal contrarian hot take. By 1997, it’s like, they may seem innocuous, but maybe Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman and Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy are the most corrupt public officials in the history of the republic! Democracy and public decency demand an investigation! That was an actual, real Slate essay by Jacob Weisberg about Herman in February 1997.
Read the whole thing, as the kids say. But I would like to push back against this a bit. It's really common, at least to me, to see this sort of framing around a lot of the inter-"Left" brawls when it comes to high brow political magazines from the 90's. That is, once upon a time liberals foolishly fought each other, but now that The New Republic has been destroyed and William Safire is no more liberals have finally gotten their act together and can focus on the important stuff!

But I think this gets liberalism and especially the Democratic Party (which is often where theses sorts of conversations lead to) wrong. In politics everything is contested, so these sorts of fights aren't really about liberal writers being "contrarian" for the hell of it, but rather they often show real disagreement  about questions like what "liberal" and "liberalism" means. Just look how that once hallowed term "Conservative" has become "I'm with Trump" in the last few years!

In other words the "contrarians" may or may not have been writing that stuff to be, well contrarian. But those views, whatever you think of them, were once a mainstream part of liberalism and the Democratic Party. As political scientist Jonathan Ladd put it back in 2016 when surveying the downfall of The New Republic:
One way to think about this is as part of an intra–Democratic Party argument that took place in the 1980s and early '90s about what the party needed to do to win presidential elections more often. From 1968 through 1988, the Democrats lost five out of six presidential elections. Many liberal pundits and Democratic politicians debated what the party needed to do to win presidential elections again. The truth was that this streak was a product of essentially random variation in short-term economic conditions close to election time. But pundits and politicians wanted an ideological explanation.

One natural inference was that because the party started losing presidential elections around the time it heartily embraced the civil right movement and turned against the Vietnam War, these changes were a major culprit. To win the presidency again, the Democrats needed to reconstruct their geographic and ideological constituency from the 1940s, '50s, and '60s.

In the 1980s, many thought that if only the Democratic Party distanced itself from threatening African-American leaders like Jessie Jackson, and demonstrated that it was tough on crime and tough overseas, it would win the presidency by winning back the white Southern voters who were the backbone of Democratic electoral strength before 1964.
I think that's spot on. Ladd goes on to put it this way:
But as the presidency of Barak Obama draws to a close, this fight over the future of liberalism and the Democratic Party is essentially over. The party has an increasingly racially diverse voting base. Racial, gender, and sexual pluralism is a key part of the party's culture and ideology...

In the two major ways the Peretz-era New Republic distinguished itself, it lost the battle for the soul of liberalism and the Democratic Party. Where once its views on race and foreign policy represented a faction within liberalism, now they don't seem liberal at all.
In other words the famous/infamous "Day Of Reckoning" cover of TNR that liberal writers love to cite these days, did in fact represent a branch of liberalism and the Democratic Party, most notably in the form of then President Bill Clinton, very much a liberal (well that's what we called him at the time), who negotiated that welfare reform bill with then newly Republican congress (he vetoed two earlier ones).

Likewise just a few years before the "contrarians" Bérubé cites the Speaker of the House was a man named Jim Wright (The Speaker from Texas as they used to say), who among other things lead Congress to override quite a few of Reagan's vetoes and chaired the 1988 Democratic National Convention. He also supported the Vietnam War and voted against the Civil Rights Act.

This all seems weird, but not really once you start thinking in terms of changes in parties and political coalitions instead of the word-smithing done by people who write about it for a living. And it's a very old story indeed, whether it's one time icon of liberalism Adlai Stevenson ducking the whole question of civil rights, or noted liberal Howard Dean making many Democratic Party old hands queasy when he endorsed the then radical idea of "civil unions" as an alternative to the impossible dream of marriage equality.

Which means the "contrarians" aren't gone, they've just changed shape. For example they are people like Kevin Drum (and me I suppose) who were deeply skeptical of the whole Bernie thing, and look back not with awe and respect, like most liberal writers these days, but with a touch of bitterness. Or you can find them with a growing chorus of liberals (Noah Smith comes to mind) who increasingly point out that liberals in major cities and their NIMBY obsessions are causing real harm to people.

To make a long story short people won't be giving these contrarians New York Times columns anytime soon, but, it doesn't mean they (we?) aren't out there. Or that new battles over the future of liberalism and Democratic politics don't loom on the horizon.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Trump Is About Norms, Not Vulgarity

Recently I was listening to a fun podcast called Filbluster by two political scientists named Tyler Hughes and Larry Becker about national politics. They were having an interesting debate sparked by the recent death of former first lady Barbara Bush about what to make of her and her husband's era of politics. And of course the Trump era we are living in now, and I thought brought into sharp focus some of my own thinking about Trump.

The debate was one of those classic ones that will probably never go away, about to what degree society keeps changing and to what degree "the more things change, the more they stay the same." What struck me as being really interesting is that while George Herbert Walker Bush and Donald Trump are in many ways completely different people, there is a strong case they they were quite similar in some ways when it came to their engagement with electoral politics.

I don't want to belabor the point because I see Bush The Elder as a fairly mediocre president (other's think he's better but I don't really see it), and Trump seems to be on track to being one of the worst in American history. But thinking about it in terms of electoral or media politics I see a lot of similarities. For example:
  • Trump's use of racial demagoguery is pretty obvious, but Bush used it too in his campaigns quite a bit, most notably in the infamous "Willie Horton Ad"
  • On the campaign trail, Trump surrounds himself with a whole Royal Court of pretty fairly awful people, most notably Steve Bannon. Bush of course had as his campaign manager in 88' Lee Atwater, a man Democratic political people used to call the "Boogie Man."  Among Lee's greatest hits were using a hired person pretending to be a journalist in a press conference to ask a question about a candidate's mental health so Lee could bring up the fact the man had been suicidal as a teen and had received ECT treatment,  "got hooked up to jumper cables" in Lee's words. Also Lee on how to win over mythical "white working class" should be mentioned as well. In other words Atwater's life and times reminds me of Trump's style and substance quite a bit, and while Bush didn't give Atwater a job in the White House, he did make him head of the RNC. 
  • Trump of course lives and breathes Fox News, there's good evidence in fact he uses Fox pundits as part of forming White House rhetoric and policy. Fox News got founded in the late 90's of course and its chief architect was Roger Ailes. Who was one of Bush The Elder's major media guru's on the 88' campaign as well the man who according to Richard Ben Cramer's "What It Takes" once told the Vice President after he wore a tie and a short sleeve dress shirt at a speaking engagement on a hot summer day, "Don't ever wear that shirt again!...You look like a fucking CLERK." Bush rarely did that again and Ailes would be Bush's major media buyer through much of the 88' primaries as well.
My point here isn't to say the George H.W. Bush is the same as Donald Trump. Far from it. George H.W. Bush was a man born of great wealth and privileged to an old money American family, who was a war hero and college athletic star, who then moved to another part of the country to make his own very large fortune, and who dedicated his life to politics and public service, and who cared deeply about forging an international system that would preserve global peace and advance American interests. Donald Trump is none of those things.

So what's the point of this blog post? Well the point is that I think the Filibluster debate focused too much on political actions when the big thing is political norms. 

In other words Trump shreds political norms wherever he goes, from big things like calling for his political opponents to be imprisoned, to little things like refusing to invite any Democrat to his state dinner with the President of France. But George H.W. Bush, whatever he was willing to do in his campaigns and rise to power, at least worked to try and uphold those political norms he had trampled on.

In other words Bush's campaign may have focuses on racial demagoguery at some times, but he's also a president who signed the 1991 Civil Rights Act (admittedly he vetoed the stronger 1990 bill). Likewise after stoking the flames of racial animosity in his campaign, when the LA Riots happened, he gave a president address where he was very "Law And Order" in the beginning. But then talked about what happened to Rodney King, "I felt anger, I felt pain, I felt how can I explain this to my grandchildren? Civil rights leaders and just plain citizens fearful of and sometimes victimized by police brutality were deeply hurt."

Just try to imagine Trump saying something like that. Now try to imagine him saying it in the midst of a riot in America's second largest city.

My big point is this: Becker and Hughes are asking the wrong questions. Politics has always been nasty, even the narrative of the "Good Old Days" of post war congressional congeniality in Congress are probably more PR than anything else, and don't get me started about how the Founders' views of each other. But trying to maintain the norms used to be something Republican Presidents like George Herbert Walker Bush cared about. Now under Trump this seems to be gone.

I'll make no predictions about the future, after all I really did think there was a way Trump could win the GOP nomination. But I do think Barbara Bush is a woman from another era, a era where democratic norms mattered, and while Trump is the oldest president in a long time, his shattering of norms seems to be a big thing for the future.

We'll see what happens.

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: