Monthly Archives: July 2017

GOPolarization

Politics these days is mostly a case of united be damned, divided we’ll brawl. Citizens of the Republic, pollsters and pundits reliably inform us, are in a partisan blood feud of Hatfield and McCoy proportions. The shamans of my own tribe—academics poring over the data-equivalent of chicken guts—say the portents of this growing polarization are not good. Red states and blue states are having a punch up, it’s beating the nation black and blue, and all those who care deeply about the preservation of liberal democracy either seeing red or feeling blue. Apparently, we’re having a bit of a blue period.

And, let’s face it, there’s more than a smidgen of truth to this. The left-right divide has gotten so bad that politics is giving race a run as the great social divider. These days, people are more opposed to an ideological interloper marrying into the family than someone with a skin tone containing an unacceptable dose of melatonin. And forget any hopeful half-glass message there. It’s not like we finally achieved post-racial myopia and got a prescription giving us 20-20 clarity on our political differences. To shift the metaphor from the visual to the aural, all that dog whistling to white anxiety coming from high government places can be heard loud and clear by everyone.

While the reality of political polarization is pretty depressing in its insistence on the anti-Rodney King no-we-can’t-all-get-along message, if you look at numbers long enough you start to realize there is an imbalance to this division. The popular image is of a roughly fifty-fifty split between liberals/Democrats and conservative/Republicans. And that is just not true. The reality of political polarization in the United States is that on one side is a rump of the GOP-affiliated tribe. And on the other is pretty much everyone else.

That everyone else is not just liberals and Democrats. Our picture of the self-assortment of the populace into different political tribes is a bit fuzzy, with the numbers shifting a bit depending on polling source and whether the question is asking about party identification or ideological leaning. And while civilians – and increasingly, people who should know better — often use ideology and partisanship synonymously, in reality they are not the same thing. Roughly speaking, about a third of American citizens view themselves as conservative, about a quarter as liberals, meaning the plurality—better than 40 percent—view themselves as in-the-middle moderates. The partisan differences inexactly parallel those numbers, with more of an even split between Dems, Republicans and independents. Still, if you think of the country as roughly a third Republican/conservative, a third liberal/Democrat, and a third whose political philosophy is basically a-pox-on-all-you-jagoffs, you wouldn’t exactly be right, but you wouldn’t be too wrong either.

If we take that as a rough and ready way to apportion the political perspectives of the population, there is indeed deepening chasm between them, but not really into the camps the press portrays. It’s not the right against the left with miffed moderates in the middle holding their noses, leaning one way or the other and splitting the difference. In reality, political polarization on many of the questions that divide is made up of two lopsided groups. One is a mashup of diehard Trump fanboys, anti-intellectual conservatives and a large pinch of increasingly queasy GOP party loyalists. And on the other side, there’s everyone else.

This split is most obvious in the approval numbers for President Trump. According to poll aggregation sites like fivethirtyeight.com and pollingreport.com, roughly 80 percent of Republicans give him a thumbs up. The real story, though, is in the disapproval numbers. Democrats disapprove of Trump in eye wateringly high numbers—around 90 percent in some polls—and independents are not far behind at around 70 percent disapproval. That’s why Trump is the most unpopular president since the advent of modern public polling. His party’s base supports him. Nobody else does.

This helps explain why the GOP is having such a rough time getting anything done even though they have unified control of government. What was supposed to be the GOP’s signature legislative accomplishment—repealing and replacing Obamacare—has been harder than advertised at least in part because there’s no public support for it outside of Republican echo chambers. The numbers on this policy basically reflect the president’s standing with the American public: Democrats oppose the GOP’s healthcare plan by 90 percent and Independents by 70 percent. So on healthcare, Republicans (just) want the GOP to repeal Obamacare. Everyone else does not.

The bottom line is that public support for the policy agenda being pursued by the governing party consists of, give or take, 30 to 40 percent of voters. Sixty to 70 percent oppose it—there’s just not that many left in the undecided middle anymore. So we have this weird situation where the government just elected to run a liberal democracy is actively ignoring the wishes of the commonweal. Rather than government by the people and for the people, its government telling the people to go suck eggs unless they vote in Republican primaries. From a democratic-politics-as-usual perspective, the politically astute play for the GOP—shoot, the only reasonably smart political play—would be to adjust the policy to get more public support. The federal government’s leaders either flat out refuse to do that (Trump) or for a host of reasons can’t do that (Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell).

That’s not a prescription for a healthy or stable liberal democracy. Which is why government nerds of all political leanings are getting the fantods. A democratic government can get by without majority support if a reasonable chunk of the populace basically couldn’t care less. If a minority fervently wants government to do something and the majority response consists of “meh” and a bit of shoulder shrugging, that minority might get what it wants without risking a political bloodbath. On the other hand, a democratic government vigorously pursuing an agenda that is actively opposed by a majority of the people it purportedly represents is, by definition, in trouble. And that’s the state the Republican’s find themselves in right now: they are trying to wield their government majority on behalf of a popular minority against the wishes of the popular majority.

So, the situation is not that our divided house cannot stand. It’s that a majority increasingly can’t stand the people dividing the house. That is certainly a recipe for divisive and polarized politics and the nastiness is likely to be alleviated by one of two things. Either the Republican leadership reaches for the center, or it the center crushes the GOP in future elections. Given the Trump administration’s track record during its first six months, I’d rate the latter more likely than the former. Until then, though, the fight goes on.

The Senate is in The House

A little known fact about polymath fussbudget and Founding Father pin-up boy Thomas Jefferson is that he apparently had appalling table manners. And thank goodness he did. His infra dig conduct while strapping on the old feedbag gave us a timeless lesson about why the federal government does what it does. While breakfasting with George Washington, Jefferson deliberately slopped his cup of coffee into a saucer, and that indecorous act of beverage redistribution is now immortalized for making an important point about the United States government that has particular contemporary resonance.1

In addition to liberally splashing his Folgers around the available crockery, Jefferson was pressing Washington about why the Constitutional Convention had opted for a bi-cameral legislature. Tommy-boy had not been at the big bang Philadelphia event—he was off in France putting the moves on Sally Hemings and practicing a little light diplomacy—and he couldn’t see the reason behind a two house Congress. Surely such redundancy just made it harder for the government to get anything done?

In response Washington said, “Why did you just now pour that coffee into your saucer before drinking?” Which was a good thing. If he had actually said what he was most likely thinking—“if that latte stain doesn’t come out, you cheese eating Lothario, you’ll be getting the bill for a new table cloth”—the story wouldn’t be nearly as educational.

Anyway, thinking quick on his feet, Jefferson said he dumped his coffee into his saucer, “To cool it, my throat is not made of brass.”

“Even so,” said Washington. “We pour our legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.”

What Washington was trying to get across was that the Senate and the House were designed to serve different purposes. The House, with its short terms and smaller districts, was all about capturing whatever issue of the day had the hoi polloi on the boil.  And whatever that was, knowing the plebs it was probably not fully thought through and likely to scald the commonweal right on the butt cheeks if rapidly translated into law.

So into the senatorial saucer it went, where legislators more insulated from the heat of immediate political concerns could let it cool and fish out the bits that represented a democratic choking hazard. Senators had longer terms (six years instead of four) and, remember, at the time were not popularly elected, but chosen by state legislatures.  So they didn’t have to worry much about voters. Plus, at least as originally conceived, the Senate was to be largely populated by aristos and toffs, the sort of people who were not likely to let grubby concerns like partisan politics stand before what was good for the social order.

And, even with the advent of popular elections in the Senate, that’s more or less how it’s worked. The House has tended to be more partisan and more in a hurry to get things done. The Senate moves at a statelier pace and is less likely to hew the partisan line. These days, though, not so much. The institutional differences that marked the very different political cultures—and purposes—of the House and the Senate are eroding fast. The Senate has basically turned itself into an over-caffeinated partisan dogs’ breakfast. It’s less interested in cooling the ideological coffee than in gulping down the Kool Aid. It is trying its hardest to become the House.

While there’s plenty of blame to go around for this sorry state of affairs, the biggest portion properly belongs on the plate of GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Which is odd, because he seems, or at least seemed, to have a pretty good grasp of the Senate’s unique and important role in American governance. If allowed to work as designed, McConnell once said, the Senate’s central job is fundamentally different from that of the House. The House pushes the majority party agenda and to hell with the loser weenies who disagree with it. The Senate’s job, on the other hand, is to help insure laws are acceptable (if not enthusiastically supported) across the entire political spectrum. As McConnell put it, if the Senate’s majority party acted in a similar fashion to that of the House—basically employing the institution as “an assembly line for one party’s partisan legislative agenda”—it would undermine the notion of consensual rule and promote “instability and strife.”

Huh. So clearly he knew what he was doing when he turned the Senate in a partisan assembly line of gridlock and dysfunction. During the Obama administration he spent eight years conducting a gobsmackingly cynical campaign to prevent the president to get anything done. His avowed primary goal during the first of those four years was to make Obama a one-term president. Getting anything done—even if it served Republican, or heavens to Betsy, even national interests—took second place. McConnell’s then counterpart in the House, GOP Speaker John Beohner, said his caucus would do everything to stop the policy agenda Obama was elected on, the plan being “to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can.” In other words, the battle cry was (and still is), “death to bipartisanship.”

You expect that sort of stuff from the House, though. What was unusual was that McConnell did the same thing in the Senate. And he did it well. And more or less continued doing it when the GOP finally won everything in 2016. Recently McConnell had the Senate writing laws to radically restructure a sixth of the nation’s economy (i.e. the recently deceased healthcare plan) in secret. No public hearings. No Congressional Budget Office scoring. Not a lot of input even from his Republican colleagues. In short, there was no senatorial saucer cooling on the biggest issue Congress handled in the first six months of the Trump presidency. Instead, the McConnell-led Senate basically dumped gasoline on a forest fire. And got badly burned when the central legislative goal of the Republican Party for the past decade went up in smoke.

There are some small signs that McConnell is rethinking his arsonist-as-chamber-leader approach, but it’s not clear there’s any temperate middle ground left to go back to. The Democrats clearly have taken a lesson from McConnell’s time as a minority leader. The basic strategy they seem to be following is this: Screw up as much as possible, blame the other side, and take responsibility for nothing. And, hey, why not. It worked for McConnell and the GOP.

The problem is that strategy is fundamentally predicated on destroying the Senate’s traditional institutional role as the partisan surge protector of the Republic. This is why filibusters are going out the window, budget reconciliation rules are being turned into partisan clubs, routine and uncontroversial nominations are getting mugged by parliamentary process, and public hearings are avoided unless they provide some political gain for the party with the power to call them. This sort of stuff, adjusted for differing rules and roles, has always happened in the House. And that’s pretty much what the Senate is becoming—a chamber focused on short term partisan point scoring. Which is disturbing, because there is no third chamber to rein in the worst of the political excess. We’re at a point where the Senate is in the House.

That is really bad news, and even way back when, George Washington knew it. At the conclusion of that long-ago breakfast, Jefferson once more pressed Washington for a justification for the Senate.

“Well, why have you put my breakfast sausage in your pocket,” said Washington.

“Um, I’m reserving something to nibble on later,” said Jefferson, obviously wondering if he could also get the leftover scones into his waistcoat.

“Just so. And that’s why we have a Senate. To save our bacon.”

Okay, I can’t verify those exact words, but I’m pretty sure I got the gist. Maybe somebody familiar with Washington should invite Mitch McConnell over for breakfast.

 

  1. Or maybe not. This story, though widely repeated, is likely apocryphal.

 

 

 

 

 

A Free Press Is Not A Fair Press

Al Franken, Minnesota’s junior senator and the single biggest giggle getter in the United States government,1 had a hard first campaign for office. His winning margin was a couple of hundred votes and what with recounts and lawsuits, and more lawsuits, and, yep, more lawsuits, it was eight months after the election before he actually took the oath of office.

Before that happy ending Franken had to deal with a lot of tough media coverage. Not only was he labelled a joke candidate—and not just because he was a professional comedian and satirist–he was on the receiving end of some pretty nasty press. An article he’d written for Playboy got dredged up, put through media rinse, and “pornographer” became the syntactic caboose on sentences mentioning his name. It also turned out that at some point he’d paid taxes to the wrong state, which meant he hadn’t paid taxes to the right state, and, as you might guess, it was the non-payment that got the headlines.

The media mud bath had Franken feeling pretty low and sorry for himself, so he wrote to a big political figure who had his own massive set of less than flattering press clippings. That guy was Al Gore, the candidate most Americans supported for president in 2000 but lost because of the fiddle-the-books accounting of the Electoral College (sound familiar?). Franken figured Gore would be sympathetic and could maybe give a few tips on how to deal with a media environment that could eat a reputation alive. Here’s Gore’s three word answer:

“Suck it up.”

Every elected official—and one in particular—could profit from that advice. President Donald Trump, to put it mildly, is not sucking it up. He less bears the slings and arrows of the free press than questions the whole concept of “free”. He has bashed news coverage and news outlets he doesn’t like as “fake”, has openly mocked a disabled reporter, tweeted a kind of weird and creepy video of him body slamming someone with a CNN logo for a head, called one journalist “dumb as a rock” and described a TV talk show host as “bleeding from a facelift”. His administration’s relationship with the press is rapidly becoming, not just adversarial, but unabashedly hostile.

There’s no better evidence for this than Trumps recent tirade against the American media, made on foreign soil no less. Part of that included this quote: “What we want to see in the United States is honest, beautiful, free, but honest press. We want to see a fair press, that’s a very important thing.” Trump sought sympathy on this point from Vladimir Putin, who was happy to oblige. Let’s hope Putin wasn’t offering any pointers on what to actually do about reporters and their pesky questions. Russian journalists critical of Putin have a suspiciously high mortality rate.

It might be good if someone reminded the president of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. It says nothing about an “honest” or “beautiful” press, and says not a jot about being “fair”. It says Congress shall make no law prohibiting the freedom of the press. Period. That’s all that a functioning democracy requires and all the U.S. Constitution demands. Not a fair press. Not an objective press. And certainly not a beautiful press. Just free. The press needs to be free to cover government as it sees fit, without government interference or direction. And if the government and its officials do not like what the free press reports? Tough noogies.

Donald Trump genuinely doesn’t seem to get this, or how dangerous it is to suggest that things should be otherwise. There’s no question that the media is not being nice to Trump. That’s not their job. Fox News wasn’t nice to Obama. The Washington Post could be pretty hard on Dubya. Pretty much the whole DC press corps piled on Bill Clinton when it turned out he was getting his corn nibbled by a White House intern in the Oval Office. The press isn’t nice to, well, lots of politicians. Ask Richard Nixon. Gary Hart. Mark Foley. Larry Craig. The Keating Five. Marc Sanford. Rod Blagojevich. And a gagillion others. Ask Hillary Clinton if she thought the press coverage of her email inclinations was “fair”, “honest” or “beautiful.”

Here’s a small sampling of some of the less than flattering things the press corps thought to make national news about Obama: he was not born in the United States, he was “the most ignorant president in our history”, and he was the “founder of ISIS.” Trump should recognize all of those not fair, not beautiful, and certainly not honest claims. After all, Trump himself made them and didn’t seem too upset that the national media megaphoned them to the moon. The problem only seems to be when he’s on the receiving end.

A free press, no doubt, can get pretty ugly. Is sure as shooting can be pretty unfair. But what’s the alternative? Letting the government and its representatives bring the press to heel might make for more “beautiful” coverage of the powerful, but that’s not what a democracy needs. Democracy needs the press to be a watchdog with teeth. Anyone who steps into the electoral arena needs to recognize they might get bitten in the ass—justifiably or not—and needs to accept that’s just part of the gig. It’s the price of keeping the press free, and democracy rarely survives without a free press.

Most pols, of course, get this. They recognize the singular importance of First Amendment freedoms and their necessity to democracy, even if they aren’t happy with the result a lot of time. Most elected officials—believe me, I used to be a political reporter—get ticked off at the press and think it’s unfair. Most elected officials—certainly none I’ve ever been personally or professionally acquainted with—would never stoop use the power of their office to wage petty feuds with journalists or media outlets, much less engage in a systematic campaign force the news to give them better coverage. .

Because most elected officials are grownups most of them, quite properly, follow Al Gore’s advice. Donald Trump should too. You hold the most powerful office on the planet. People are not going to like everything (or even much of anything) you do. The bad stuff will be covered by the media. A lot. What’s the best response to that?

Suck. It. Up.

1.You might know him better as Stuart Smalley or the one-man mobile uplink character from his 15 years on Saturday Night Live, or from one of shoot-milk-out-your-nose funny books like Lies, and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. I guess having a 30-year career in comedy obviously gives you a pretty big leg up in being king of the yuks in the political world, but it also helps that pretty much no other politician is funny.


The Unfortunate Heart of Politics

Thomas Jefferson supposedly once said that the “American experiment would prove that men can be governed by reason and reason alone.”* Well, Tommy-boy, the evidence is in and that hypothesis holds less water than beef jerky.

If the Republic has proven anything it is that people are mostly governed by their passions. Oh, they are happy to tell you that their politics are cogent and reasoned. And, in the vast majority of cases, they are absolutely wrong. Political attitudes are driven by impulse and intuition, debated with fervor and feeling. Our political choices are driven less by rational heads than by peevish hearts. Politically speaking we are less Mr. Spock and more Dr. McCoy. Rational analysis is not our bag, we’re more damnit-Jim-let’s-set-phasers-to-kill types.

Jefferson had this idea—noble, but completely nutty—that the American system of government could foster an informed and judicious citizenry. Ensconced within the nurturing folds of their democratic blanket, the electorate would do its part by deliberating carefully before making its political choices. This collective act of popular prudence would accrue into governance by and for the greater social good. Many Americans still tend to favor Jefferson’s idea as a not wholly fallacious description of the Republic’s reality. And, like Jefferson, they’re self-deludingly bonkers.

It’s hard to govern by reason and reason alone because, well, reason is never alone. Its constant companion is emotion. And while emotion often doesn’t make much sense and leads us to do some pretty silly stuff, it sure feels good. Reason proposes cutting down on the carbs and taking up jogging. Emotion proposes sitting down on the couch and taking up a cold one. Reason might know what’s best for us, but chances are we’re guzzling beer and chips and not powering up on minimally processed, gluten free protein pucks before a five mile run.

Believe it or not, the same general principal works in politics. Especially contemporary politics, which is increasingly tribal. People are not voting on the basis of a knowledgeable and dispassionate weighing of pros and cons on what’s best for themselves, their community, or their country. At best, they’re just voting their team. Political scientists have known for decades that you can predict someone’s vote with 80-90 percent accuracy in pretty much any election, from city dog catcher to president of the United States, just by knowing their party identification. At worst they’re mad as hell, haven’t a clue, and making their political choices more or less at random.

Now, there are some in my profession who argue that being pig-ignorant and voting purely on the basis of who has an “R” or a “D” on the ballot is both rational and reasonable. If the parties represent competing baskets of policy positions and a voter has a minimal notion that one is more conservative and the other is more liberal, then there’s no need to dive too deep into the details. As long as the “R” or the “D” more or less connects with the genuine preferences of the voter it’ll all come out in the Jeffersonian wash.

Except it doesn’t. The lack of information for many voters is so gobsmackingly complete they are largely incapable of connecting what they want out of government to their vote. In other words, they are perfectly capable of repeatedly voting against their own interests. There have been a number of academic studies suggesting this is a widespread phenomenon and even entire books devoted to the subject (the best known is probably still Thomas Frank’s, What’s The Matter With Kansas?). Representative surveys administering basic tests of political knowledge show most Americans flunking even the most basic civics test.

If there’s plenty of evidence that people are not voting on the basis of reason, there’s overwhelming evidence they are voting on the basis of emotion. Anger, hope, frustration, trust, disgust – this is what gets people ginned up and out to the polls, not their extensive consumption of C-SPAN and policy white papers. Most elections—certainly the last one—are less Jeffersonian rites of reason than cries of passion. Politics for most people is less sober meditation on how to improve the public administration than an irksome let’s-just-get-this-over-with civic obligation or, even worse, a yee-haw moment of catharsis.

Unlike Jefferson, Founding Dudes with more skeptical takes on human nature—James Madison, Alexander Hamilton—never thought reason intruded too far into the politics of the vast majority of people. The idea of a Republic bobbing along on a warm bath of populace-supplied rationality probably struck them as loony. They were just hoping to get a jigger of the stuff into government while tamping the popular passions down to the smallest minimum possible.

And the institutions they established have done, mostly, a decent job of this. But human institutions are no match for human nature. The institutions increase the probability that actual grownups will run the government, but they offer no guarantees. They give reason a decent shot at making it into the running of the commonweal, but offer no warranty. They leave open the possibility that those elected to powerful office will reflect the troubling political traits that huge swaths of voters display in spades: A mind-blowing lack of information about government and a disconcerting reliance on emotion in making important decisions. Given the behavior of a certain bitter Twitter critter, you might say we are already there.

And what’s a reasonable person to do when that happens? Beam me up Scotty.

*I say “supposedly” because while I could track down plenty of examples of people quoting this quote, I couldn’t actually locate an original source or something that cited an original sauce.