Winning is a Loser for the GOP

Roy Moore (R-19th Century) lost to Doug Jones (D-Surprised) in Alabama’s special election to replace Jeff Sessions (R-I Don’t Recall). But it’s not really clear who actually won. Dems–and certainly Jones–might take issue with that. Well, fair enough, it would be churlish not recognize this as a big fat blue W, a triumph achieved in the reddest of red states. As those sort of wins are rare as principled legislators on the Senate floor, it’s hard to begrudge them a whoop and a victory lap.

Funnily enough, though, this was also a win for Republicans or, to be more accurate, the least painful form of defeat. In this election, no positive outcome was possible for the GOP. Moore gets elected and Republicans either seat someone credibly charged with sexual abuse of minors, or expel one of their own. Political hot potato doesn’t do that scenario justice. That’s a tuber of incandescent sizzle, a pickup-sized root vegetable packing more capsaicin than a jalapeno. A Moore win would have forced the Senate GOP to choke down that sucker whole while the entire nation watched their faces turn red and tears squirt from their eyes. No sane Republican wanted that for their party; it would’ve been preface to civil war or moral disarmament, and maybe both.

Some Republicans–Donald Trump and the RNC–were clearly willing to take those risks and threw in their lot with Moore. Plenty of other Republicans–Mitch McConnell, Jeff Flake, Richard Shelby, Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney, etc.–approached the special election with clearer eyes and colder calculations about the costs of a Moore victory. The GOP grownups actively opposed Moore and/or supported Jones for a simple reason. The only way forward they could see for their party was to have their own candidate lose. Tuesday’s result gave this pretty large group of Republicans what they wanted. They won. By losing.

Unfortunately for Republicans, their through-the-looking-glass political calculus of gaining political victories with defeats is not limited to this one special election. The no-Moore gambit isn’t a one-off tactical hit, a losing a battle to win a war sort of thing. The Republican Party seems to have adopted a full blown strategy of winning by losing. They won the presidency, but lost the dignity of that office. They won a Congressional majority, but lost the ability to govern themselves. They won control of government, but lost the faith of the people. They won power, but seem to have lost their soul. When you’re reduced to calculating whether to support a suspected pedophile or attack a candidate fair-and-square selected by your own voters, you really are at the point where losses count as wins.

Voters on Tuesday, no doubt, saved the Republican Party an enormous amount of humiliation and discomfort. Yet while Alabama prevented the GOP from publicly airing its crimson hide in a painful expulsion debate, this was balm for a symptom rather than a cure for the underlying problem. The problem is the Republican Party is imploding under its own success. They have somehow got themselves into a corner where their “victories” exact enormous–potentially existential–political costs. Yet they can’t afford too many losses, because losing runs the risk of exposing the GOP as a party more than willing to lose its principles as long as it wins power.

Thinking Republicans–and, despite recent evidence to the contrary, there’s still plenty of these folks around–not only recognize this, they’re agonizing over it. This list includes people like Charlie Sykes, David Brooks, George Will, Jeff Flake, and many more, a long list of those reluctant to accept a majority stake in government for their party if it means choking down the populist-flavored Kool-Aid Donald Trump is serving up.

So where does this leave the Republican Party? Other than cleaved in two, it’s hard to say. The populist and establishment wings are openly warring with each other and it’s not clear what, if anything, holds them together as a coherent political force. There’s no discernible consistent philosophical or intellectual principle driving its policy agenda. The primary motivation behind the party increasingly seems to be the pursuit of power because it makes it easier to stick it to a varied group of people and institutions–immigrants, the poor, environmentalists, scientists, the media, public schools, higher education, and especially Democrats–they see as causing them grief.  The closest thing to a guiding set of principle seems to be an infomercial pitch that the new and improved tax-cuts-for-the-rich will cure everything–Unemployment! Manufacturing malaise! Healthcare! Whooping cough! Zits! This doesn’t seem to be fooling anyone any more, including large swaths of the party faithful. It’s getting harder and harder even for GOP stalwarts to buy into the populist piffle and accusatory tweet storms that increasingly characterize Republican governance.

Maybe the party could win by suffering a massive loss in the 2018 midterms. A period in the wilderness might give it a shot at reflection and rejuvenation, or at least a chance for its dueling wings to get into the full-throated death match members of both camps are clearly lusting for. Whoever emerged from that throw-down would at least give us a clear idea of whether the GOP really wants to be the center-right party of Reagan or the champion of alt-right populism. Regardless, if they retain control of government in their current state there’s a very real possibility they cease to be a viable political party in any form, at least over the long term.  Unfortunately for the GOP, its midterm opponent is the Democratic Party, which rarely misses an opportunity to snatch defeat from the mandibles of victory. So, Republicans might have one more victory left in them. And that means they will lose. By winning.

Credit Card Conservatism

Who knows what the final version of the Republican tax plan currently winding its way through Congress will end up doing. Certainly not the people who actually vote for it. Last week the Senate passed a bill that nobody had read and many found, quite literally, illegible. Senators got the “final” 500-page version minutes before they voted on it and it was an editor’s nightmare. There were huge last-minute changes drafted in prescription pad chicken scratch. Here’s an example of what it looked like:

Based on just this one page’s marginal addendums, Senators were given only a few minutes to decide whether they would vote “yea” or “nay” on the critical issue of, and I quote as near as I can decipher, “adjustments attribulatos conservism for a craporation.”  Said adjustments subject to “(1) Inguanas in the care of ellifiths rumnitatdos craporation any incage.” Well, as a matter of public policy that’s a toughie. I suppose I could understand a legislator supporting rumitading Inguanas if it was all done by consenting adults. It’s a free country. But why force innocent ellifiths to get involved? Surely there’s some moral, if not legal, objection to that? And why does anyone have to get craporated at all? That sounds downright painful (Q: Howya feeling Bill? A: I’m craporated).

In all seriousness, the Senate has gone silly. When it comes to writing law, you kind of expect the House to indulge in the odd round of ill-considered speed stating. It’s kind of what it was designed for, to capture popular passions or, as is increasingly these case these days, to capture unpopular passions. The Senate, though, is supposed to be the grown up branch. If the House puts things on the boil, it’s the upper chamber’s job to cool them down. The Senate is supposed to be the reflective, ruminative chamber, the legislative nanny who pulls the government’s fingers out of whatever light socket the House has jammed them into. Well, these days, not so much. Present the Senate with the political equivalent of an electrical outlet and somebody’s digits–most likely ours–are going to get lit up.

It’s kind of hard to overstate the negatives of the process used to jam the tax bill through the Senate. Forget all the pat-on-the-back hoo-hah about that place being the “world’s greatest deliberative body.” There wasn’t any deliberation, no thoughtful pleas on one side balanced with reasoned pleas on the other. It was about speed, not plead. No public hearings, no real chance for any analysis, not even time to read the damn thing–there’s a high probability that not a single legislator really knew the specifics of what they were or were not voting for. Lobbyists wrote much of the law–more than half of the registered lobbyists in Washington DC report working on tax legislation  — and they did it on the fly. At least some senators received their copies of the “final” bill from lobbyists rather than from Republican leadership. This isn’t how you make law. This is how you make a mess.

The jettisoning of Senate procedural norms to engage in a slapdash sprint to pass legislation that is clearly going to cost a packet is all the more puzzling because of who is doing it. Lots of Republican senators — and certainly plenty of their colleagues in the House — have spent years campaigning on the dangers of growing government debt and deficits. Agree or disagree, resisting the production of more federal red ink has been a central principle for many Republicans. So much for that. Currently, there is little interest in such principles and even less in the interest that’ll be due on the principal thanks to the loan Congress will have to float to pay for it all (that interest is easily going to be 50-plus billion dollars).

A generous interpretation of what’s going on with the tax bill is that Republicans are playing the long game. By driving the deficit up and putting expiration dates on the middle-class tax breaks, at some point in the next decade a broke and unpopular government (bonus if it’s got a Democratic majority) will have no choice but to make some serious cuts. By then the rushed and incompetent legislation that created the empty pockets will be long forgotten. Taking advantage of the electorate’s political amnesia, Republicans can then say, “hate to do it, but the government is totally broke and we’ll have to take some of your Social Security and Medicare to balance the books. Bummer, but whaddya gonna do?  Don’t look too close, just remember Obamacare, Benghazi, Hillary’s emails, etc., etc.”

I’m skeptical some long-game master plan is under all this.  What we seem to be witnessing is a sort of credit card conservatism. Like shopaholics glued to QVC, the GOP just doesn’t seem to able to help itself. Desperate to cover the emptiness it feels over a lack of legislative accomplishments, Republicans are putting as much as they can on the old plastic fantastic to appease special interest sponsors and justify its majority. It’ll worry about the minimum payments later.

Buying goodies for your crew on the never, never, though, runs a big risk of buyer’s remorse. Voters clearly think they’re being suckered—public opinion polls suggest that large majorities think the tax plan is mostly a scam to benefit the well-off (you can peruse a range of them here).  So, passing a plan with dubious arguments about borrowing from the future so the Grey Poupon crowd can make bank in the here and now might stick in people’s memories longer than some realize. If that happens, the tax plan might turn out to get the reaction we all have when we open those monthly envelopes from Visa and MasterCard: Well, rumitard an Inguana, we’ll never pay this off. We’re totally craporated.

Bureaucracy Isn’t Funny

 

For most Americans government bureaucracy is a joke. Literally. Here’s an example: How many bureaucrats does it take to screw in a light bulb? Two. One to screw it in, one to screw it up. There’s plenty more where that came from. Bureaucrats are good at fixing blame, bad at fixing problems. Bureaucrats never stop a buck here. Pass a buck, sure. Spend a buck, definitely. Stop the buck, not so much.

I know, I know, the japery isn’t exactly hitting Dave Chappelle or Jim Carey levels of hilarity in the old chortle department. But consider the material I’m working with here. And if jokes about the bureaucracy don’t make you laugh, I don’t mind. Because what’s happening at and to the executive branch agencies of the federal government these days just isn’t funny. Through a mixture of neglect, incompetence and premeditated demolition, the operational capabilities of a range of federal bureaucracies are being systematically degraded.

Plenty of the president’s supporters–and, I’m guessing even some of his detractors–are cheering on this dismantling. Everyone knows a government bureaucracy is a system designed to allow twelve men to do the work of one (bada-bing). Everyone knows bureaucracy is just cease on the wheels of progress (bada-boom). Maybe so. But everyone is dead wrong.

Let’s just take one example of a bureaucracy that’s suffering under the Trump administration, the Department of State, the executive branch agency dedicated to foreign policy. Managing foreign affairs has always been considered an important and central responsibility of the federal government. The Department of Foreign Affairs–which later became the State Department–was created by an act of Congress in 1789, the first federal bureaucracy ever brought to life under the Constitution. There’s a reason for this primacy–since the founding of the Republic foreign relations have been considered a central responsibility of the federal government, and wise management of that portfolio requires diplomatic expertise.

Most people see the sense in that. Foreign affairs are important to any nation state, or at least any nation state that wants to sell goods in foreign markets, buy stuff from foreign markets, protect its citizens when they travel abroad, and prefers to make jaw-jaw before war-war. For an economic, military and cultural juggernaut like the United States such functions are critical. Having an agency stuffed with experts on foreign governments and how they operate comes in mighty handy if you want to stop them from lobbing a nuke your way, or prevent them from otherwise being an irritant or nuisance to the national interest. Shoot, it’s pretty important if all you want to do is sell furriners more corn than the contents of a Hee Haw episode.

If that agency isn’t up to par personnel-wise, it’s hard to do that stuff, or at least do it competently. And the State Department these days is the opposite of stuffed. There are 72 appointed positions in State that the Trump administration has yet to bother submitting a nominee for.  And we’re not talking coffee boy and copy gopher sort of jobs. The president has yet to nominate anyone for four of the six undersecretary positions (you can find a running tally of Trump administration nominations here ). State Department careerists have been heading for the exits for six months, essentially with Trumpanistas smirking, “don’t let the door hit your butt on the way out.”

While foreign policy experts across the ideological spectrum have responded with alarm to the hollowing out of the agency, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says it’s all just so much pointy-headed fuss and feathers. There’s no need to worry about State being undermanned because, and I’m not making this up, the United States doesn’t need so many diplomats because world crises and conflicts are getting resolved. Uh-huh. I guess we don’t need an ambassador to South Korea (no one nominated) or a special envoy to North Korea (ditto) because, well, nothing going on in that neighborhood. We haven’t got a representative to the European Union either, but what the heck, everything looks tickety-boo over there and it’s not like they’re important to US interests.

President Trump has given assurances that there’s no cause for disquiet or concern. Sure, the government of the United States is increasingly managing its foreign relations without experts who know the language, culture, politics and modus operandi of allies and opponents. But who needs ‘em. As Trump puts it, “I am the only one that matters.” That news was received by two pops. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping popping a cork. Everyone else popping Prozac.

The erosion of expertise, professionalism and technical competence would be bad enough if it were limited to the State Department. But it’s not. It is a general, systematic trend across the federal bureaucracy. Education, Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, Agriculture–whole swaths of the federal government are in various stages of being hollowed out and actively undermined by the people appointed to lead them. These efforts may very well turn the United States government into a joke. But it’s really not that funny.

 

Talking Turkey on Tax Plans

Henry Clay Warmoth was a famously corrupt governor of Reconstruction-era Louisiana who never claimed to be anything other than the carpet bagging chiseler he was. “I don’t pretend to be honest,” he said. “I only pretend to be as honest as anybody in politics.”* And, as everyone knows, candor is harder to find in politics than molars in a hen house.

Warmoth would, no doubt, appreciate the truthy-falsey nature of the marketing campaign surrounding tax reform plans currently working their way through Congress. The recently passed plan by the House differs in pretty substantial ways from what’s currently being floated in the Senate, so who knows what specifics will emerge from the legislative difference splitting. Regardless, Republican proponents promise– crossed hearts, pinkie swear and everything—that once all is said and done, as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy put it, “Every single American is going to keep more of what they earn.

Well, not every American. Obviously. According to the Joint Committee on Taxation, Congress’ non-partisan bean counter of tolls and tariffs, there’s winners and losers (you can see their report here). The short version is that some Americans–mostly big, important rich Americans–will get to keep a truckload more cash, more than $40 billion of it.  The middle class will get to keep a skosh more, at least until their tax breaks expire. Those earning under $40,000 are–surprise, surprise–being set up to get screwed.

It’s seems accurate enough that most people will get a modest bit of tax relief from the House bill (something on the order of a hundred bucks), but between 1-in-5 and 1-in-3 will actually see their taxes increase a bit. And a good chunk of the actual tax relief is set to turn into a pumpkin in a few years. The modest tax goodies for suckers, um, regular citizens, have an expiration date. This is needed in order to mathematically keep the deficit kraken submerged in a (fake) shallower sea of red ink. So, the number of people who will see their taxes rise as a result of Republican plans will grow over the long term. And who ends up paying more? Hint: If you’ve got more than six zeroes to the left of the decimal point in your checking account, don’t sweat it. The GOP has your back.

You can get a good sense of how the House Republican tax plan will effect Americans as a whole by just looking at what it will do for the roughly 45 people who at least nominally call me boss (they call me a lot of other stuff too, much of which I won’t repeat). I sit at the apex of the mighty knowledge producing machine known as the University of Nebraska’s Department of Political Science. Its employees include professors, administrative staff, adjuncts, teaching and research assistants. No one in this group is a 1 percenter (or even a 10 percenter), but at the top end there’s a group earning a decent upper middle-class income. That group includes me, so lover of lucre I am, I was eager to see how the Republican plan would line my pocket. To do this I used an online calculator designed to give you a rough idea of what your tax burden would look like if the House plan actually became law (there’s several to choose from, the one I used for all calculations in this post can be found here, and you can follow this link to figure out what your own tax payoff might look like).

For me, it turned out not a huge amount, a couple of hundred bucks give or take, with adjustments up or down based on which set of assumed numbers I plugged into the calculator. At the extreme end, punching in the most hopeful (and unrealistic) estimates I could get the calculator to spit out a tax savings for me of about eight hundred dollars. Let’s just round that out to a thousand because it makes the math easier. Using the Warmoth guide to veracity, then, I can honestly say the Republican plan would put an extra grand in my pocket.

Let’s take a look at the other end of the income spectrum in my department. On this thin end of the wage spectrum are teaching and research assistants. These are grad students who get paid a $16,000 annual stipend, plus a tuition waiver. Under current law, the tuition waiver is not counted as taxable income, but under the House Republican plan it is. So, tax relief for these guys means getting taxed on money they never had. The table below shows the difference in their tax bills under current law and the Republican plan.

Yep, their tax bill jumps by about 500 percent, increasing by about two thousand dollars. At least in my little world, then, what the Republican tax plan does is redistribute income from the have nots (grad students) to the haves (me). A thousand dollars translates into about twenty bucks a week. Putting that much extra in my weekly paycheck will have pretty much zero impact on my saving or consumption patterns. Taking two thousand dollars from a grad student is a serious hit—it represents a couple of months of take home pay.

Broadly speaking, this analogy seems to be generalizable. Current tax reform plans in Congress will be a huge boon to the Wall Street crowd, a huge boondoggle for the poor, and people in the middle like me are being offered twenty bucks a week to go along and pretend it’s all a good thing. Unlike Warmoth, though, some of us have met bribes we’re willing to refuse. This tax reform plan is a seriously bad idea. Honest.

Chernow, Ron, 2017. Grant.  New York: Penguin. p. 757

Moore or Less

Come December 12, the good citizens of Alabama will go to the polls and choose either an alleged pedophile or a Democrat to represent them in the United States Senate. It looks like it’ll be a close call. On the one hand, Republican candidate Roy Moore increasingly looks like a Harvey Weinstein-level perv. On the other hand, his opponent, Doug Jones, has a sordid personal story that makes him equally repellent to the good burghers of ‘Bama. Did I mention he’s a Democrat? Sure, Moore might have had an unhealthy interest in teenyboppers, but at least he doesn’t bear the mark of the beast — a “D” next to his name on the ballot.

The question of whether Alabama will go for the Dem or the deviate has created exactly the sort of migraine Republicans at the national level did not want or need. There is no good endgame here for the GOP. If Moore is elected they either have to accept a tribune of astonishing political toxicity into their midst, or vote to expel one of their own. The former increasingly seems like a non-starter–the last thing Republicans need going into the 2018 midterms is to have GOP interpreted “Grand Old Pedobears” by large swaths of suburbia. Sounds snappy and fits on a bumper sticker, but it’s not exactly a vote winner. Recognizing the potential damage to the party brand, Senator Cory Gardner–the guy running the Republican senate’s fundraising arm–has flatly argued for expulsion if Moore wins. Huge chunks of the GOP caucus have already declared Moore hotter than a two-dollar pistol, so there’s little doubt about the outcome if it comes to an expulsion vote.

Actually going through that process, though, would be the political equivalent of a Tabasco enema for Republicans in the Senate, an unpleasant procedure that’ll leave their butts stinging for some time.  Voting to expel Moore effectively requires them to publicly declare a member of their own party just got elected who is spectacularly, breathtakingly, unqualified, a guy whose character flaws are so deep they render him unfit to wield the power of political office. No doubt, Democrats will be happy to run with that: “They said it, not us. And come to think of it, does that description apply to any other Republican currently high up in the government you can think of?” The only silver lining in this scenario is that the Alabama governor would get to appoint someone to replace Moore, and presumably that would be a Republican who was not ick on a stick. All that gets the GOP, though, is back to its current small Senate majority at the low, low price of doing more for Democratic midterm electoral fortunes than actual Democrats (admittedly, that’s not saying much).

That Republicans are openly considering an expulsion vote even before the outcome of the election is known says volumes about just how poisonous Moore is considered to be to the party’s national fortunes. Rogues and mountebanks by the dozen have served in the United States Senate, yet only a handful have ever been expelled. The vast majority of them were Southern senators supporting the Confederate rebellion that precipitated the Civil War. The most recent senators to face the ignominy of having their colleagues give them the elbow were John Ensign in 2011 and Bob Packwood in 1995. Ensign was a Christian values hypocrite, an adulterer condemning Bill Clinton for chasing interns around the Oval Office while handing out financial favors to keep his own extramarital shagging on the QT. Packwood was accused of sexual abuse and/or assault by nearly 20 women. Both resigned before an official expulsion vote was taken.

As Moore seems doggedly determined to see the election through to the end, there’s a decent possibility the Senate will take the first official expulsion vote since 1942. The question back then was whether William Langer’s long history of payola, perjury and corruption made him morally unfit to serve in the upper chamber (the answer was no, he was seated on a 52-30 vote). Nobody in the majority party is going to relish taking a similar vote on Moore, but right now there are only two real options to avoid it.

The first is for the GOP to conjure up some sort of white knight write-in campaign. In other words, get voters to use the fill-in-the-blank option on the ballot to elect some Republican who does not have a reputation for cruising malls looking for underage dates. Moore’s primary opponent Luther Strange has been mentioned, and so has Jeff Sessions, former holder of the seat and current attorney general. That’s an unlikely Hail Mary. For one thing, it probably means getting at least half-a-million voters to show up and spell your name right. For another, you actually need a name and, three weeks out, there isn’t one. Neither Strange nor Sessions nor anyone else has shown much enthusiasm for a campaign short on time and long on improbabilities.

The only other option available is a Jones victory. And at this point, that seems the least awful outcome for the GOP. Some Senate Republicans are openly pulling for the Democrat. The national party has pulled funding, pulled staff, and is pulling its hair out trying to figure out a way to stop Moore. That’s made harder by the fact that Alabama Republicans continue to back him. Bibb County Republican Chair Jerry Pow said he’d vote for Moore even if he was a kiddie canoodler because, well, at least he’s not a Democrat. State Auditor Jim Ziegler defended Moore by saying what he’s accused of is no big deal because Mary was a teen and Joseph an adult so clearly … well, I’m damned if I know. The gist seemed to be that thirty-something dudes hooking up with fourteen-year-olds outside the local mall is biblically kosher or something. I’m not sure about that, though as people of all partisan persuasions reacted to Ziegler’s comments with a slack-jawed “Jesus Christ!” maybe there is a theological argument in there somewhere.

The bottom line is that Roy Moore is hurting the Republican Party. Just how bad the damage is, and how long it lasts, is down to the choice Alabama makes on December 12. For many of the conservative faithful who go to the polls the choice is clearly going to come down to the lesser of two evils. But which one? The Republican Party is clearly hoping that less is not Moore.

 

The Court Does Not Compute

 

 

Imagine a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court interrupting an attorney’s argument by saying, “sorry counselor, but I only read at a third grade level, so your brief is just gobbledygook to me.” It’d probably raise a question or two about that jurist’s ability competently adjudicate thorny legal issues, wouldn’t it? If the remark received an enthusiastic “me too” from a colleague peering mystified at an upside down copy of the Constitution, we’d probably worry about the capability of the court as a whole to decide critical matters of jurisprudence, not just an individual justice.

There’s no doubt that illiteracy in a Supreme Court justice would be greeted with open-mouthed astonishment. How could an individual bereft of an intellectual skill so basic and necessary to the job get elevated to such a high and influential office? On the other hand, if a justice cheerfully admits they are innumerate and will have to take off their shoes and socks if required to count past ten, no problem. An inability to read would clearly cause any jurist mortification and embarrassment. Being ignorant of basic mathematical principles, well, that just makes you as dumb as the next guy. To the mystification and mortification of us educators, there’s no shame in that.

Believe it or not, Chief Supreme Court Justice John Roberts recently more or less made exactly this sort of confession in open court. The me-no-likee-math moment came during oral arguments in Gill v. Whitford, a case that’s a big hairy deal likely to have far reaching effects on partisan control of state and federal governments for decades. Roberts’ chipper acknowledgement that he can’t deal with numbers is enough to set middle school math teachers on vibrate all by itself. But it’s bigger than that. What we have here is essentially an admission by the chief justice that he’s incapable of understanding the crucial argument at the heart of a potentially landmark case.

The issue here is partisan gerrymandering, a time-honored tradition practiced widely by both parties. Every ten years, after the decennial census, states are required to literally redraw the political map, adjusting the topology of congressional and state legislative districts to fit population shifts. As a general rule, whichever party controls the state legislature enthusiastically seizes this cartographical responsibility to maximize partisan advantage. In other words, they do their best to shuffle voters into a set of districts–a dab of Dems here, a skosh of Republicans there–to maximize the probabilities their party will win legislative seats.

While this sort of thing has always gone on, after the GOP’s “red tide” 2010 election, Republican majorities in many states took it to new extremes. This is what Gill v. Whitford is all about. In 2008’s Wisconsin State Assembly elections, Republicans got 44 percent of the votes statewide and 46 percent of the seats (46 of 99 seats). So, overall, there was a more or less a translation of the statewide popular vote into representation in the people’s house. In 2010, the GOP took control of state government in Wisconsin and enthusiastically began, literally, to change the political geography of the state. In the 2012 assembly elections Republicans got 47 percent of the vote and 60 percent of the seats. In 2016 they received 53 percent of the votes and 64 percent of the seats. So, if we look statewide, Democrats have received more than half (2012) or nearly half (2016) of the votes cast, and ended up with a small minority — less than 40 percent — in the legislature.

And that’s the basic question the Supreme Court is grappling with in Gill: If district maps are jiggered to a fare thee well so that a party supported by a minority of voters ends up with a dominant legislative majority, is everything still constitutionally kosher in equality town? Clearly Republican votes are worth way more in Wisconsin than Democratic votes. That’s not the issue. The real issue is how big does that inequality have to be to justify calling naughty-naughty on the legislature and forcing a districting do-over to more faithfully translate popular votes proportionally into legislative seats?

Well, there’s the rub. You need a dash of math to come up with an answer. Is it even possible to measure the degree of partisan voting inequity? Sure. Social scientists do this sort of thing for a living. The best measure available is what’s known as voting efficiency and it’s not a tough concept. Calculating it requires nothing more than voting totals, the ability to add, subtract and divide, and a cheap calculator. What you end up with is a ratio that tells you how well a party converts votes in legislative seats. So, for example, a voting efficiency gap of .20 means the majority party got 20 percent more legislative seats more than they would have if there was no hanky-panky by the district draw-ers. Undergrads can pick up the logic and the math in about 10 minutes, and I’m betting you can too. You can read a quick introduction here , and reading just the first two pages should make the concept clear.

Apparently, that’s more than Chief Justice Roberts can handle. He called the whole argument “sociological gobbledygook”, and several of his colleagues poo-pooed the idea, smirking that if the court bought into all this quantitative hocus-pocus (i.e. addition, subtraction and division), why, we’d end up with pointy headed political scientists drawing the lines for political districts. Um, well, here’s a newsflash bench-boy: We already do. Republicans and Democrats routinely pay people with our exact qualifications and skill sets seriously big bucks to draw those maps to maximize their electoral fortunes (what can I say, we need the dough). And if the Supreme Court can’t grasp the basic math used in these exercises–again, not that hard–they really have no freakin’ clue what they are dealing with.

This doesn’t seem to bother Roberts. He cheerfully said his lack of understanding, “may simply be my educational background.” That’s a gobsmacking statement. Roberts got his undergrad and law degrees at Harvard (his JD was magna cum laude). I had no clue that after spending a third world country’s GDP on an Ivy League education you could still be left incapable of grasping a basic numerical exercise, something I can get a farmer’s kid from western Nebraska to master inside a quarter hour.*

So, while the Supreme Court’s shameless flaunting of its mathematical illiteracy reflects poorly on the quality of the court’s jurisprudence, it might be good for us teaching at public universities. Roughly a third of political science majors at my institution are pre-law majors–my discipline produces a lot of lawyers (for which I’d like to formally apologize). And while we can’t give our grads the snoot value of a Hah-vahd credential, we sure as shootin’ can (and do) make sure they have a basic understanding of numbers before we release them into the wild.

We do so for a very good reason.These days, a basic quantitative skill set is a basic, and absolutely critical, tool for anyone seeking to make systematic sense out of even the most elementary disagreements about our social, political and economic worlds.  It’s apparently also a skill set that the Supreme Court loudly and proudly lacks.

*This may be an unfair comparison. Unlike Harvard trained lawyers, corn farmers have to be good with numbers if they want to make a living.

A Teaching Moment

The people who teach politics and government to college undergraduates are credited by some with truly astonishing powers of persuasion. These capabilities are supposedly deployed in the service of a Big Brother-ish conspiracy to turn higher education into an  indoctrination factory stamping out platoons of radical lefties.

I think we political scientists are often seen as prime movers behind this conspiracy because of what we do. We’re talking to young adults. Behind closed doors. About politics. What else could we be doing in there besides getting kids to turn off their phones and swear undying fealty to Karl Marx or Bernie Sanders? It’s not just us, though. The whole paranoia-tinged concern is not infrequently extended to all college instructors, even to college administrators. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos seems pretty convinced everyone on university campuses from adjunct faculty to deans are focused on politically indoctrinating impressionable young minds, telling students, “what to do, what to say and, more ominously, what to think.”

I’m genuinely curious about the details of this mighty psychological alchemy we are believed to so easily deploy. Seriously. Maybe I just missed the midnight meeting beneath the full moon when all the brainwashing cordials were being distributed. Perhaps I wasn’t at the gathering of the sacred scholastic coven where they did the mind control workshop. I freely admit this is possible. I try to avoid faculty meetings when I can. Well, whatever, I clearly missed the memo. I’ve been teaching for 25 years, and I am largely clueless as to how you locate the political thermostat on an undergraduate and effortlessly spin it around to whatever setting that keeps you ideologically warm and comfy. Even if I could find the instructional webinar on that skill set (a YouTube search yielded zilch on that front), I’m still not clear on why undergrads would consent to me fiddling around with the governor on their political passions.

And, believe me, they have political passions. Oh boy, do they have political passions. These days, college students show up politically pre-stoked and as an educator you tangle with those politics at your own risk. To get a flavor of this sort of thing, watch this video of Professor Nicholas Christakis interacting with students over the fraught issue of racial sensitivity and Halloween costumes on the Yale campus. In this exchange, the professor is  getting pressured to raise his consciousness to a different political plane by students, not the other way around. There’s a lot of this going on these days.

For those of you who watched that video and are in high dudgeon about social justice advocates piling on well meaning academics, just know the right has its equivalent. Most of us in higher education now harbor realistic worries about the blood-and-soil batty brigade showing up on the quad and doing a little light goose step cardio.  The tiki torch crowd inevitably attracts a counter-demonstration and where things spin off from there, well who knows. That sort of thing, though, is (thankfully) still a pretty rare event. Much more common is resentment against the perceived anti-Republican and anti-conservative bent of the pointy heads who supposedly run higher education as a sort of political re-education camp. Some state senators in my home state, for example, seem to be pretty convinced that my institution is openly hostile to right-leaning political viewpoints and suspect at least some departments on campus of shading the line between education and lefty indoctrination pretty fine.

These sentiments are shared by some undergrads. Ironically, though, right-leaning students now seem increasingly willing to express this resentment by using the same sort of poor-me whinging conservatives often associate with liberals. Both sides seem less interested in engaging with different viewpoints than in resenting the fact that anyone considers them legitimate. Though far from universal–and I can’t emphasize enough that lots of undergrads are more grown up that many grown ups in this debate–there seems an increasing willingness to deal with differing political views on campus by just throwing a tantrum. I’ve had to deal with several instances of students writing passive-aggressive polemics along these lines in class papers. Ditto with various of expressions of I-resent-people-questioning-my-viewpoint, and various flavors of something someone said somewhere made me feel bad and someone else should do something about it.

How do we, as educators, deal with the inchoate stew of political grievances bubbling away on various ideological burners that our students are increasingly all too happy to fuel? Some of us still secretly favor proceeding on the premise that college isn’t a place to cocoon you from the world’s sharp elbows but an institution that should equip you with the skill set to constructively deal with the disagreeable stuff that is part and parcel of our social, economic, and political worlds. These days, though, the faculty faction supporting the just-grow-the-hell-up approach is mostly underground. Give the wrong set of students the suck-it-up-buttercup treatment, or even a light let’s-think-that-through pushback, and you’re not just the social media villain du jour, you might be laying your reputation or even your career on the line (just ask Erika Cristakis).

The bottom line is that most faculty are not leading the political charge on college campuses. The vast majority of us, believe it or not, have zippo interest in assaulting the ideological heights with a pack of brainwashed undergrads at our back. Indeed, in the current political wars roiling campus, we’re more likely to be found lily livered, yellow spines aglow, hunkered down below the parapet and hoping to avoid becoming collateral damage.

As to our motivation to mold pliable young minds into whatever ideological positions we desire, let alone our ability to actually pull that off, it’s mostly not there. That’s a boogeyman that might haunt dreams in certain political quarters, and serve as a useful tactical cudgel in the ideological wars. But, seriously, any systematic attempts to convince students to adopt a political belief system wholesale is not part of the curriculum. If some rogue faculty are surreptitiously giving this a go, they are more likely to earn the contempt and resentment of their students rather than their undying fealty to a particular political cause. Undergrads are lots of things, but they’re not stupid.

The bottom line is that the persuasive powers of academics, as anyone who has ever attended a faculty meeting knows, are pretty limited. Getting undergrads to do the weekly reading assignments is hard enough.  The whole notion that we can — or would even want to — engage in deliberate ideological indoctrination is not just misguided. It’s kinda nuts.


A Poll of Scorn Flakes

Remove the electoral horizon from a Republican member of the United States Senate these days and the result is an astonishing ocular descaling. With no next election occupying the majority of their visual field such legislators are finally free to take a clear-eyed look around them. As Jeff Flake, Bob Corker and John McCain are making abundantly clear, they don’t like what they see.

Because of voluntary retirement (Flake and Corker) or serious health issues (McCain), this trio is in the unusual position of not giving a hoot about the alt-right persecution platoons flitting through the fevered primary nightmares of their elected GOP brethren. Nor do they have to fear a 140-character Trump dump flushing their political careers down the Fox hole. They no longer have to worry about looking good to the right donors or the right special interest groups.

With their political peepers released from the need for the constant short-term vigilance on anything that might affect their chances in the next election, they’re staring hard at something else: Their own political party.  And, ouchie-mama, if you believe these guys, things ain’t looking good.

In the past week or two, they’ve certainly not been shy about reporting the perspective from their own-side eyeballing. The report basically boils down to this: “Hey, has anyone noticed? Our party just got a louche, unqualified bully elected president! We’re piddling on principle in our pursuit of power! We’re pushing half-baked policies with fibs and fabulation! Has anyone else noticed how surly and loutish we’ve become?” I’m paraphrasing, of course. But this is the general sentiment emanating from Flake’s extraordinary denunciation of his president (and party) from the Senate floor, Corker’s ongoing campaign of I-call-bull on the Donald and his inept minions, and McCain’s full-throated condemnation of the cockeyed populism hijacking the GOP.

Reactions to this have been mixed. The White House is in full there is no-way-they-can-see-the-emperor’s-unmentionables-through-so-many-layers-of-clothing mode. Democrats and lefties have suddenly rediscovered their respect for principled conservatives, making much noise about honorable men elevating values and comity over partisan point scoring. GOP colleagues in the Senate have mostly been silent, which can only be interpreted as “we can see the emperor’s junk clear as day, but we’re keeping mum in hopes of keeping our jobs, kudos to you guys for saying what we’re all thinking.”

Well, fair enough. Agree or disagree with them, not many these days have the onions to proclaim that their own side is two turnips short a full measure of root vegetables. Yet before anyone gets too misty eyed about the Mr. Smith goes to Washington performances or too choleric about their turncoat tirades (and, let’s face it, your perspective matters here), it is worth taking a look at how their actions correlate with their words. News flash: the concordance is pretty itty-bitty.

The curtain call caucus might lay a lot of harsh words on the president, but where the support of a senator really matters—the yea and nay of legislation—they’re all pretty rock solid Trump guys. FiveThirtyEight keeps a running tally of support of the administration’s legislative agenda in both chambers of Congress, and by that measure Flake, McCain and Corker are high-level yes men. Flake—the hero du jour of the anti-Trump GOP wing—votes with the administration 90 percent of the time. Corker clocks in with 86 percent support and McCain is at 84 percent. The words may be all maverick-y, but those voting records look pretty party line.

The scruples trio, for example, have all expressed disappointment in one way or another with the competence—specifically, the lack thereof—of the Trump administration. Yet they helped put it in place. Confirm someone as a department head who reveals at her hearing she’s innocent of even the basic details of her agency’s policy portfolio? How about someone who doesn’t seem to know exactly what his agency does? Or someone who knows the legal mandate of his agency and has vowed to torpedo it from within? The three principled amigos all voted for Betsy DeVos (Education) and Rick Perry (Energy), Flake and Corker both voted for Tom Pruitt (EPA), and McCain probably would have joined them if he’d cast a vote that dy. Excuse me if I take these guys’ anguished hand-wringing over the government’s ineptitude with a healthy pinch of salt.

And where these guys have broken with the Trump administration, it’s hard to see any high falutin’ principle-over-politics motivation. Flake and Corker bucked the Trump administration to vote against disaster relief for Puerto Rico, a piece of legislation that passed with a large bipartisan majorities. They also voted against raising the debt limit and extending relief for Hurricane Harvey, which was supported not just by the White House but pretty much all the grownups on both sides of the aisle.

McCain actually did cast one big vote that bucked the president and his party—he voted against the hot mess of the Obamacare repeal legislation. And, fair enough, that really was a big stand and a big deal. The GOP and Trump really felt that, and even if the bill in question was truly awful (it was) it can’t have been easy to provide the smack down ballot on something his party so desperately wanted.  The vast majority of the time, though, McCain’s votes reliably support the desires of the Republican Party and the Trump administration.

I guess the big test of whether the rhetoric on scruples will actually align with action is on the upcoming tax bill. No one is exactly sure of the specifics of this proposal or its likely consequences—Republican leadership and the Trump White House really don’t want anyone to know, they just want it enacted toot suite because they really need a win. It’s pretty certain it’ll favor the well off and liberally splash red ink onto the government’s ledgers, but outside of that who knows.

It’ll be interesting to see if Flake and Corker’s concerns about government debt translate into no votes. Will they stick to the core anti-deficit values they’ve been fervently espousing, or say pooh to principle and vote yea because the president and, especially, the Republican Party have to get a W? And what about McCain, is he actually willing to cock a snoot on a second major legislative priority?

Nothing is certain, of course, but political scientists know that the best predictor of future legislative behavior is past legislative behavior. On that basis, the odds are 10 to 15 percent that the say-do ratio for these three will balance out. The odds are way higher—85 to 90 percent history is any guide—they’ll say no and press yes. Their words have been harsh, even scornful. Polling their votes, though, reveals three pretty dutiful Republican loyalists. And actions should speak louder than words.

A Very Uncivil War

William Tecumseh Sherman famously argued that war is an unpleasant, bloody slog, and to pretend otherwise is fudge and folly. The optimal policy is not to fight a war in the first place, especially a civil war. If war it is to be, however, the best option is to ruthlessly rain harm on the other side as much as possible as fast as possible. If the gloves come off, get in there and mercilessly punch your opponent’s mug to a pulp, even if that means taking a few nasty licks yourself. “War is cruelty,” he said. “The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”

It’s a brutal philosophy, but as any Southerner stuck between Savannah and Atlanta in late 1864 can attest, an effective one. It works in politics, too. Intramural fights within political parties can be just as vicious and nasty as the most ferocious throw-downs between them. The most malevolent of these internal shootouts can devolve into Cain and Abel sorts of situations, ideological death-matches where the goal is not to lead your partisan brother to the light, but to stick a shiv in his back and put him and his movement down for good. If the ideological or policy split within a party is big enough–historical examples in the United States include slavery, trust busting and civil rights–you get the political equivalent of a full-blown civil war. As Sherman said, it is best not to get into that position in the first place. If there’s no avoiding it, though, hit first, hit hard, and don’t stop hitting until you see white flags from the other side.

Of course, all this metaphorical pugilism is presumed to serve a larger strategic goal. In other words, you commit savagery on behalf of a principle, a creed or a value so sacred it justifies do-or-die, or at least a good social media bitch slapping of people on your own side. But what if the whole point of carrying out that civil war is the sheer sport of carrying out spiteful and rancorous assaults? How do you bring that to a rapid and reasonably amicable end?

If you have a good answer to that question, the Republican Party will be (or at least, should be) glad to hear from you. The GOP is currently engaging in a particularly nasty and vicious civil war. It’s gone way past the usual jockeying for power and position of competing factions of a political party. That typically involves a lot of back-stabbing and double-crossing, but it’s mostly done behind closed doors and almost never gets to the point where the combatants are in the streets howling for each other’s heads. But that’s exactly where the GOP seems to be finding itself.

There seems to be no overarching ideological or policy goal motivating this fight. The media mostly portrays it as a conflict between the establishment wing of the Republican Party and the populist wing of the Republican Party. And, I guess, it is. The people involved certainly seem to think so. Stephen Bannon, relishing the part of Republican Party Dr. Evil, has publicaly declared “a season of war against the GOP establishment.”  The Bannon banner-men lose no opportunity to call the establishment fuddy-duddies “RINOs”, “cucks”, “booger heads,” and “snot lickers.” Okay, I made the last couple up, but some of it does smack of a 10-year-old’s you’re-not-the-boss-of-me foot stamping.

The establishment isn’t standing for it. Bob Corker and Susan Collins have wagged serious fingers (heavy on the middle digit) at Donald Trump. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson lost his temper and called his boss–the president of the United States–a moron. Dubya and John McCain are doing their best stern dad impressions, giving lectures along the lines of, “You dern kids need to stop foolin’ with all this newfangled Trumpism and listening to those hippity-hop nationalists.” Meanwhile the Republican leaders of the two houses of Congress can barely get along with each other, can barely stand the president, and seem helpless to prevent their party–the party that won everything in 2016–going into the next election bare-assed.

The end result is that Republicans keep doing inadvisable things with their own feet–shooting them, masticating them, and planting them in each other’s butts. At the center of this meltdown is President Trump, who is, hands down, the party’s champion mug-puncher. The list of sore-jawed include Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, pretty much his entire cabinet (notably Tillerson and Jeff Sessions), and most GOP members of the United States Senate (McCain, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Lyndsey Graham, Bob Corker, Ben Sasse and on and on and on). Of course Trump has not limited his slugging to Republicans. Or even Democrats. He gets licks in on, of all people, hurricane victims and Gold Star families.

The bottom line is there is a lot of extremely nasty infighting going on within the political party that controls all the major power centers of the national government. The collateral damage could get ugly. Some of the major combatants (one in particular) do not seem to be fighting for principle. They just seem to like meanness for its own sake. The goal doesn’t seem to be to end the fight quickly but to prolong it as much as possible. Then start a new one.

Given that, I can’t hazard a guess at which side of the GOP civil war is going to win. I am pretty sure, though, which of those sides is going to lose: Both of them. War, as Sherman so eloquently put it, is hell.

 

The Know Nothing Voter

Figuring out why people vote the way they do has been one of the great obsessions of political science. And, after more than fifty years of sustained scholarly effort dedicated to cracking the code of electoral choice, we’re pretty sure that Democrats vote for Democrats and Republicans vote for Republicans. Outside of that, lots of people seem to vote for lots of candidates and causes for lots of reasons. Why? Damned if we know.

This has not been quite the colossal exercise in academic futility the last paragraph implies. True, we’re still mostly at the head scratching stage of a general explanation of how decision making really goes down in the ballot booth. Along the way, though, we’ve managed to expose the most obvious and common rationales for why people vote the way they do as so much bunk. While no one was looking, political scientists have repeatedly and convincingly demonstrated that democracy–or at least democratic elections–do not work as pretty much everyone assumes they do.

Classic democratic theory presumes voters will take their civic duties seriously and cast their ballots on the basis of reasonable due diligence. In other words, there’ll be a good deal of gathering information on candidates and issues, weighing pros and cons, and cogitating on the consequences to the commonweal of backing Joe Blow or Jane Doe. While allowances are granted for slippage between theory and practice, there’s a general assumption that voters more or less know what they are doing when they show up to the polls to pin the tail on the democratic donkey.

It’s a nice story, sovereignty of the people, wisdom of the crowd and all that. Politicians and civics teachers still enthusiastically repeat the tale. And nothing wrong with the story. I like it too. The problem is it’s mostly fiction. Back in the 1950s Angus Campbell, Philip Converse and Warren Miller crushed the idea that the foundation of our democracy was an informed, judicious civitas. They did this using a lot of survey data and an early form of computer (i.e. a bunch of grad students with adding machines). Their classic study, The American Voter, reported that most citizens know diddly about the substance of who or what they are voting for. Instead, they treat politics like beer. They are loyal to a party brand even though in a blind policy-taste test they couldn’t pick a Clinton Pale Fail from a Trump Lout Stout.

Though The American Voter is now nearly 60 years old, its essential conclusion has held up. Umpteen other studies have data-dived the question to death and arrived at the same basic inference: most people are pig-ignorant about policy and politics. Once they decide–often without much in the way of conscious and reasoned deliberation–that they are a Republican or Democrat, or at least lean one way more than the other, that’s pretty much it. People will often pay attention to politics enough to justify their vote, but more in the sense of rationalizing it than coming up with an actual rationale. In general citizens are remarkably innocent of even the most basic facts and knowledge about politics and the political system, and what they do “know” is often just a mish-mash of dodgy first principles, ersatz ideological whinging, logical fallacy, and political fairy tales. It’s all held together with little more than bumper sticker clichés and social media outrage. To a large extent, that’s what our democracy stands on. Scary, huh?

As you might imagine, broadcasting news of general political illiteracy from the ivory tower is not exactly an exercise calculated to endear political science to the masses. How dare the pointy-headed professoriate cast their elitist aspersions upon the wisdom of masses? And what the heck do we know anyway? People don’t really base their voting decisions on little more than an emotional attachment to the letters “R” or “D” printed on their ballots, do they? Surely issues matter? Isn’t that what all the gum flapping in election campaigns is about? And there’s no way the good burghers of this great nation are shallowly treating elections like some sort of intramural sporting event where Ws and Ls matter more than the fate of the Republic? Sorry to send the broken record of my discipline spinning through one more revolution, but the answers to these questions are: Yes. Mostly no. Mostly not. And, sure as shootin’.

There’s little question that in terms of political IQ the vast mass of the electorate is in Forest Gump territory. Political life is like a box of chocolates with this crew, endless consumption of sweet, sticky carbohydrates that leave you feeling sick. Three-quarters of Americans cannot accurately identify the three branches of government in their own political system. One in three freshman in my introduction to American politics class cannot pass a basic citizenship test (the students who tend do the best on this test tend to be, of all things, Eastern Europeans. Go figure). Shoot, one in five Americans believes the sun revolves around the earth. These Einsteins have either studied the matter in-depth and have a logical rationale and sufficient evidence to reject heliocentrism, or science since the Enlightenment just ain’t their thing.

I’m guessing the latter. Alarming numbers of voters on the right deny evolution and poo-pooh climate change, and just-as-alarming numbers on the left believe vaccinations cause autism and genetically modified plants are bad because, I dunno, Franken-corn or something. Anyway, there’s little doubt that given the choice between the conclusions of the best available science and the spewing of the worst of the confirmation bias commentariat there’s no contest. Huge numbers of Americans choose the latter.

So, the bottom line is we haven’t really figured out why people vote the way they do, but we remain pretty gobsmacked about what voters get up to and the far-out (il)logic deployed to justify it. Along the way, what we have figured out is why government is often so screwed up, from left to right and top to bottom. That government is, fair and square, founded on the choices of voters. Given what we do know about how those choices are made, government dysfunction is not surprising. It’s practically guaranteed.