Category Archives: Governance

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.

The Big Equihack Makes A Case for Regulation

Equifax, the embattled credit rating agency known for its signature Windows 95 security app, has been taking it on the chin over the past few weeks. And, fair enough, the company deserves what it’s got coming. It is a business built entirely on sneaky-beaky data diddling, a giant corporation dedicated to hoovering up every jot and tittle of your personal information and peddling it to usury merchants for eye-watering fees.

Essentially, Equifax is in the business of selling online identities, yours almost certainly among them. By some estimates, worldwide it has information on 800 million individuals and 88 million businesses stuffed into its data swag bag. What those files contain is everything you need to get a credit card, open a mortgage, and secure a loan. It probably goes without saying, but if that information falls into the hands of the iniquitous, the virtual you may be up to your neck in financial hurt. The real, you, of course, will have to deal with the consequences.

So get prepared to deal. Sometime this summer hackers swiped the personal data of 143 million people from Equifax. The company waited a month before letting on that they’d allowed just about every adult American’s online soul to be surreptitiously sucked up by dark web’s bagman. Indeed, even now Equifax doesn’t seem to be exactly clear on everything that’s gone missing, when it went missing, or where it went. On the upside, as long as you promise not to sue them they are willing to, um, not act like complete shits. Ha, ha, just kidding! You can read in-depth about their incompetence, perfidy, and rapacious contempt for consumers here, and here, and here, and just about any other media outlet in reach of the Google machine.

True, a boo-boo this big demands that there be some consequences. Someone might be exiting corporate headquarters with the boot of ignominy attached to the seat of their pants, and no doubt there will be one or two on the receiving end of a stern finger-wagging. That, though, seems about the far limit of accountability Equifax is willing to voluntarily countenance. And even the shamed executive given the old slingeroo will no doubt depart with millions in compensatory severance boodle. I suppose that will help salve the sting of accidentally helping expose the whole credit rating shootin’ match for the cesspool of consumer-screwing avarice that it is. It goes without saying that there’s little hope of a golden parachute cushioning the fall for the rest of us. In so many words, we’re being told to just flap our arms real fast and hope for the best.

As usual when corporate greed grubbers drop this sort of a manure muffin on the plates of an unsuspecting populace, there is a boost in hue and an uptick in cry about the dangers of letting all these free range corporate chiselers run wild. Dern that federal gummint, shouldn’t it have done something? You know, like, maybe, regulate them? At least a little bit? Huh, now there’s an idea.

Of course, there is a broad agreement these days that regulating free markets is a bad idea. In general, Americans are not big supporters of government regulation, and they seem to have specific objections to passing and enforcing rules of fair play on businesses. Their elected representatives are not big on the idea either. And the people who run credit rating agencies definitely give the whole concept a thumbs down. Back in June, at the exact same time hardworking cyber-thieves were starting to pump data out of Equifax like water from a fire hose, the Consumer Data Industry Association was aghast that Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-PA) hinted he might ask Congress to pass a rule or two protecting consumer privacy.

In high dudgeon they wrote him a letter pointing out that: (a) credit rating companies already were staggering under the onerous burdens of federal regulation, and (b) there was no need for any gummint regulation because of the industry’s widely recognized fervent dedication to protecting sensitive information. The CDIA noted what resolute defenders of the public trust the Equifaxes of the world were, and the “strong authentication techniques” they used to insure that “consumer disclosure is not going to the wrong person.” As they summed up, “The consumer reporting industry is adequately regulated and goes to great lengths to ensure consumer data is protected” (you can read the full letter here).

A seasoned veteran of the corporate-political interface will be able to parse those words carefully enough to extract their true meaning: “We’re lying our asses off about being over-regulated, and we don’t give a flip about who has their mitts on Joe Q. Public’s digits, but we’re richer than Croesus and want to keep it that way. So bug off. We’ll call you if we need a bailout.” Or words to that effect. In reality, the credit rating game is played with extraordinarily little public oversight, and what oversight does exist is as likely to be implemented by state governments as the feds.

Maybe the Equifax data breach will change that. Certainly there’s a lot of people charging around the public arena right now pointing out that a pretty good-sized equine just exited the barn, so maybe the federal government should do something about all those open doors. And, indeed, given that credit rating agencies deal in what amounts to our online avatars–remember, “their” product is our identities–it makes a lot of sense for government to treat them as the equivalent of a public utility. That means regulating them, really regulating them, not using the fill-in-the-blank rule book they currently operate under.

There’s some small chance this will actually happen. Free market fan boys have at least temporarily muted their assassin’s creed vows to do in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the federal agency that, despite the best efforts of Congress, has actually been trying to keep the gouging, duping, hood-winking and general larceny in the financial sector to a minimum. There have even been some rumbles about untying one of the CFPB’s regulatory hands in deference the degree of inconvenience the Equifax hack is visiting upon citizens.* Maybe, just maybe, the financial industry is not quite the steadfast protector of privacy it claims to be. Some in Congress seem, however reluctantly, open to the notion that companies like Equifax are more interested in profits than probity. Maybe a federal bully boy with the power to stick up for the small guy is not such a bade idea, even if it does cut a fraction of a point off the old quarterly profit report and downgrade executive bonuses from truly obscene to merely outrageous.

I wouldn’t hold your breath, though. Any such regulation is likely to give the Gummint-Bad-Bidness-Good Congressional Caucus the fantods, and those lads have patented a legislative solution that automatically dilutes any real restraint placed on Wall Street and its brood. The Great Equihack Gaffe of 2017 might raise a doubt or two about the dangers of unchecked financial finagling, but, as is almost certainly being pondered in corporate lobbying suites right now, what’s all that money for if not to calm the qualms of wavering legislators?

 

* Congress has tightly secured both of the agency’s hands behind its back back to make sure they didn’t give too much aid and comfort to predatory consumers asking awkward questions about why they had six Wells Fargo checking accounts they didn’t ask for.

Bernie’s Wishful Notion Potions

 

I’m not sure if Bernie Sanders actually graduated from the Hogwarts Academy of Political Enchantment and Necromancy, but his level of magical thinking certainly puts him in Dumbledore cogitation territory. He seems to be thoroughly convinced that he can conjure up an American Denmark out of the Republic’s potions book. Um, yeah. Good luck with that.

Now, it’s possible that Bernie actually does know the location of some secret political Platform Nine and Three Quarters, a place where a solar-powered liberal locomotive will arrive complete with an organic treats trolley, the populace will happily pile on, and from thence be steamed off to some progressive Elysium while munching fair trade chocolate frogs. That makes about as much sense as some of Bernie’s policy proposals, proposals that grown-ups who should know better are starting to take way too seriously.

Case in point is Bernie’s current drive to implement a single-payer, universal healthcare system (you can watch him giving the basic pitch here). He’s tried this several times before. He supported the 1993 American Health Security Act, which was basically state-based universal health care coverage (you can read the full text of the bill here), and he went whole hog for socialized medicine in the American Health Care Security Act, a bill he introduced into the Senate in 2013 (actually the bill got pretty watered down, but if you want to see where he was coming from you can read his original proposal here ).

None of those efforts made much noise. In between torpedoing the Clinton administration’s healthcare reform efforts and sucking the soul out of Obamacare, partisan Dementors sent Bernie’s healthcare plans off to the congressional equivalent of Azkaban. Not this time. Bernie has roughly a third of the Democrats in the Senate signing on as co-sponsors of his new bill–including pretty much everyone being seriously considered as a 2020 presidential aspirant. The bill is the Medicare for All Act, the thrust of which is to, well, put everyone on Medicare. In a nutshell, the basic idea is for all of us to have the same basic health insurance plan, which will be provided by the United States government. None of that Obamacare shilly-shally, it’s on to that geezer pleaser, the doc-for-the-vox-populi plan for the lot of us.

How will that work? How much will it cost? Who’s going to foot the bill? What about Big Pharma, Big Med, and Big Insurance, won’t they have a big problem with it? Will the GOP make some political hay out of this and might it, perchance, cause some problems for the Democrats? In order, here are the answers: dunno, dunno, dunno, affirmative-roger-bingo, and, you bet your sweet bippy.

The dunnos are standard Bernie-gram policy communication. He is not known for letting irritating practical details get in the way of forcefully advocating sweeping reform. He is super-keen on loudly insisting government do something, but whispers inaudibly about all the practical particulars necessary to transform wish into reality. Indeed, he gets kind of snippy when people pester him with vexatious queries like, “How’s that gonna that work?” In this case, the plan seems to be that Congress declares health care a human right and everyone signs up for Medicare. And then … well, something, I guess. Maybe Bernie mutters a sotto voce incantation of “wingardium leviosa”, gives a swish of one of Mr. Olivander’s best wands, and yada, yada, yada, ol’ Doc Potter is standing by to write free prescriptions for the migraine I feel coming on.

Now a single-payer system is, in theory, not a bad idea. Actually, it’s a pretty good one. It can mean everyone gets basic health care coverage, and no one gets sent to the poor house, even when the doc takes a look at those lab results and diagnoses it as a virulent case of “cha-ching!” It’s not the idea that’s bad–I’m actually down with it. Nor is it the philosophical issue Bernie-types like to bang on about. In other words, the arguments over whether health care should be a human right, a universal privilege bestowed on all by a benevolent state out of noblesse oblige, or something like tacos and underpants, a good you purchase on your lonesome without tax-backed subsidies. Who cares as long as you can get reasonable access to healthcare services without risking penury? That, said, if Bernie does get this through, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him proposing free taco trucks on every corner and nationalizing Fruit of the Loom.

The real problem is not conceptual or philosophical, but practical. In a technical sense, how do you make it happen? In a political sense, how can you make this feasible? Answering the first question means figuring out how to blow up a sixth of the American economy and radically restructure it in a way that leaves everyone with decent healthcare. That’s tough. Real tough. It’ll require pols and policy wonks to put on their big boy pants and hammer out deals with the healthcare industry that many are not going to like.   Other countries have managed it, though, so surely with a skosh of Yankee ingenuity and can-do grit we can figure something out.  I suspect an answer to the second question, though, is simply out of reach. I just don’t see how this works politically.

Let’s take just one screamingly obvious political issue this proposal creates. Roughly 150 million Americans get their health insurance through their employers. And by all that Nate Silver calls holy, they seem to like those plans. The Bernie Bros—and remember, this now includes a big chunk of supposedly grownup Democratic senators—seem to think you can go out on the campaign trail and tell these people, “we’ve got this ace idea to take away your healthcare plans and put you all on Medicare! But don’t worry, your healthcare will be better. Or not. We’ll get back to you on that. But you definitely will pay less. Unless you pay more. Anyway, it’s a fabbo idea, so remember to vote for us!”

There is no doubt that huge numbers of sitting legislators are willing to go out into the 2018 midterms and hit that message hard, loud and relentlessly. And they are almost all Republicans. From a GOP perspective, this won’t cure the electoral damage of the Great Obamacare Repeal and Replace Fiasco and Masacree of 2017. But it might make it sting a bit less, or at least provide a reasonable campaign trail dodge to the effect that Republicans aren’t the only ones proposing to blow up the healthcare system without carefully thinking through details.

Let’s face it, Bernie hasn’t exactly been good for the Democratic Party. He winged Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign pretty good, and looks set to put a lesser, but still potentially painful, burn on the Democrats with this healthcare push. But then again, I can’t fathom why anyone would think he might be good for the Democratic Party because, well, he’s not a Democrat. Granted, he plays one when it suits the purpose (Politifact says, at best, he’s an unenthusiastic,  reluctant and inconstant Democrat ). Near as I can figure, he’s an independent/Socialist who doesn’t like political parties, but is happy to take advantage of them. He likes to sit outside the system and rail at it and demand it should change. The problem is that while he’s pretty good at saying what he wants changed, he’s lousy at providing any realistic path to getting there. He just seems to think it will happen if only enough people want it to. What’s worrisome is that people who should know better are starting to take that whole idea seriously.

The click-your-heels-and-wish-real-hard school of politics, though, rarely achieves much. And until an Owl comes down your chimney with Medicare enrollment papers, I wouldn’t put too much faith in Bernie’s magical thinking.

The Art of the Squeal

People frequently and foolishly assume that the president of the United States holds enough power to get pretty much anything they want done. Presidents, presidential aspirants, and certainly a current 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue leaseholder I could name, frequently and foolishly encourage such bosh. Presidential power in fact is a surprisingly limited–and limiting–thing.

No one knew this better than Harry S. Truman, who famously grumbled that, “I sit here all day trying to persuade people to do the things they ought to have sense enough to do without my persuading them.” Truman predicted that his successor Dwight Eisenhower was going to have a rough adjustment period. Top ranking generals in the Army can act like real authoritarians. Presidents, not so much. “He’ll sit here and say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ Truman snarkily predicted. “And nothing will get done.”

Truman’s words struck a particular chord with Richard Neustadt, who at the time (early 1950s) was a freshly minted Harvard PhD hanging around Truman’s White House as a special assistant. Neustadt was a political scientist who was unlike most of his academic tribe in that he spent a considerable amount of time interacting with actual politicians.1 Neustadt went on to become famous among my polyester-loving people (political scientists are called Das Sansabelt Volk in German) for writing the definitive book on presidential power. With the typical wit and wordplay that political scientists are known for, Neustadt titled his magnum opus, wait for it, Presidential Power.2

Joking aside, Neustadt’s book really is the definitive study of the subject and its conclusions about the actual power of the presidency shade astonishingly close to Truman’s cavils about the constraints of the office. When you get right down to it, the president’s formal powers are (at least in theory) pretty limited. He really hasn’t got the political juice to just make government do what he wants it to. He can’t make law and he can’t raise money. He has to get Congress to do that. He can veto things. But that just means admitting Congress wouldn’t do what he wanted. He can sign Executive Orders, which makes for a cool photo op, but is weak tea compared to actual legislation.

Neustadt argued that the real power of the presidency rested not on the formal tools of the office, but on three intangibles associated with whatever individual happened to occupy it: public esteem, professional reputation, and, above all, the ability to persuade. In short, the true source of a president’s influence is his (or her) deal-making skills. Powerful presidents are those that successfully nudge, nag or sway Congress into doing what they want them to do. To do that it helps to be popular with the public, it helps to have professional respect, but bottom line is you gotta be able to cut a deal.

Donald John Trump clearly lacks two of the three. His approval rating is lower than squid pee and rapidly diffusing into the salty currents of public opinion. His professional esteem basically rests on reality show star power—he rates, like, seven Lindsay Lohans on the TMZ Index of Sideshow Celebrity. His cred as some sort of business whiz, on the other hand, is pretty much PR and pixie dust. Between Trump University, Trump Steaks, Playboy videos, wrestling appearances, and the epilogue of his business books invariably concluding in Chapter 11, the president’s record as some sort of business titan covers more blemishes than Clearasil. Making a deal, though, that’s something he is supposed to be good at.

Except maybe he isn’t. Thus far, git-‘er-done deal making has not been a hallmark of the Trump administration. Deals have either never been made (health care), never got off the ground (making Mexico pay for that wall), or seem to exist completely in the never-never (NAFTA renegotiations). The central strategy of Trump’s deal making approach seems to involve royally pissing off all the important players he needs at the bargaining table, and heaping scorn on those who won’t do what he wants. And, well, maybe that works in the reality-TV-porno-business world. Democratic politics, on the other hand, is less the art of the deal than the art of the meal. It’s all about making sure you can get half a loaf. Trump seems to think the goal is to swipe the entire thing and gorge on it in front of the starving eyes of your vanquished foe.

Trump’s approach to deal making was in full head-scratching mode this week as he actually did cut a deal. With Democrats. The losers who left the bargaining table rattleboned and deprived of their much needed share of whole grain political carbohydrates were Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. Trump blindsided them—and even members of his own cabinet—by agreeing to a Democratic plan to attach hurricane relief spending to a short-term (three month) increase in the debt ceiling. To put it mildly, that’s not what the GOP wanted. Ryan looked understandably constipated coming out of the meeting. He was so tight-lipped and monosyllabic he clearly was suffering from irritable vowel syndrome. McConnell looked even worse. He was so thin-lipped his incisors had practically disappeared up his nostrils, the tips just peeking out like some sort of angry vampire boogers.

In the short term this gives Trump, with some degree of credibility, the right to claim he cut a deal by shoving aside the status quo way of doing things. In other words, just the sort of shake-it-up, non-politician hoi polloi hogwash he was elected on. In the long-term it almost certainly reduces his ability, perhaps catastrophically, to make future deals with Congress. Even with his own party. Why would Ryan and McConnell trust Trump, let alone stick their necks out to carry his water when he’s just shown he’s perfectly willing to hold their heads under it? Sure, it’s plenty amusing to watch Democrats and committed anti-Trumpers like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi give props to the president—their words of praise mumbled like they were still dealing with the after-effects of a particularly nasty dental procedure. But as Trump has spent eight months heaping infamy and opprobrium on both their heads, they represent the minority party in congress, and, oh yeah, their voter base is seething with virulent anti-Donny sentiment, it’s hard to see this as a long-term deal making partnership.

The bottom line is that less than a year into his term, Trump has managed to seriously corrode his working relationship with just about everyone on Capitol Hill. It’s truly an awe-invoking accomplishment. And it’s seriously going to crimp his ability to cut deals. If that last remaining leg of the power source gives, Trump may prove to be a very weak president indeed. That’s what Truman and Neustadt would surely predict. This week’s gobsmacking smoochie with the Dems may simply be Trump hankering for a win at any price to prop up his fading art-of-the deal cred. If Congress decides to go its own way, though, Trump, like Truman, will find that it can make a president scream. So, no one should be surprised if Congress is about to give the president a lesson in the art of the squeal.

  1. I’m not joking. One of the things that most surprised me about becoming a professional student of politics is the relatively low levels of interaction between this set of academics and government officials. As a political reporter I’d spent years of my working life in the company of pols. I’ve met scads of political scientists who–I kid you not–have spent less time interacting with the humans who actually practice politics than I did in any randomly chosen week, and certainly any month, of my career as a journalist. It’s a weird world I inhabit.
  2. In later editions he jazzed it up a bit, using the snappier title Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents. You can buy a copy here. Ignore my snotty editorializing about beige language—his main thesis holds up six decades on and is well worth the read.

The GOP Is Starting to Get Tired of All The Winning

 

Reince Priebus, the recently canned whipping boy of the Trump administration, says things these days look pretty rosy for the Republican Party. “Winning is what we were supposed to do, and we won. That’s the job of the Republican Party. It’s in the best shape it’s been in since 1928.”

And, in sense, Priebus is absolutely right. In my professional parish, a political party is defined as an organization dedicated to running candidates for office under its own label. If a party’s primary purpose is to contest elections, then it follows that the obvious yardstick of its success is how many elections it wins. As the Republicans won pretty much everything last go around, Priebus’ claim that things are just tickety boo for the GOP has a reasonable portion of quantitative veracity. In other words, contrary to opinions from other quarters, Priebus is not completely full of crap.

Here’s the thing, though. If a party wins enough of those elections to gain control of the government it is expected to, well, govern. Professional observers of government such as myself are realistic enough to recognize and accept that the primary driver of any political party is the pursuit of power. Once a party gains power, however, voters expect them to do something with it. You know, like all the stuff they promised to do if they ever got into the driver’s seat.

And, at least thus far, Republicans under Donald Trump are proving themselves spectacularly incapable of governing. Don’t take my word for it.  Lots of conservative Republicans are saying exactly the same thing (you can read what a bunch of them say on this matter here). Republican Senator Jeff Flake makes the argument in painful detail. Neo-con Bill Kristol says more or less the same thing. Some of the lads over at the National Review are not only saying the GOP can’t get things done, they are skating mightily close to openly calling Trump nuts and the Republicans nuttier for making him the face of the party’s governing brand. The collective point of all this concerned conservative navel gazing seems to be a growing sense of buyer’s remorse. The gist is basically that putting the pursuit of power above everything else—principles, policy, pride, values, facts, social cohesion, adult supervision—was a Faustian bargain that turned out to be a very bad deal. Indeed, those are pretty much the exact words Flake uses. If this is what prominent conservatives are saying, you can imagine the high-pitched wails of Republican incompetence being raised on the left.

Priebus, though, isn’t having any regrets or second guessing. As head of the Republican National Committee he became the face of the party’s embrace of Trump and his promised brand of governance, and backed that up by becoming, however briefly, White House chief of staff. For his trouble he was relived of his dignity and of any illusion that Trump would magically mature into a more conventional statesman once in office. It was still all worth it, Priebus argues, because of what the Trump administration has accomplished. What are those accomplishments? According to Priebus, “a conservative Supreme Court justice, regulatory reform, and a healthy economy.”

Uh-huh. As far as anyone can tell the healthy economy is just a continuation of its pre-Trump trajectory. For certain, in the past six months the federal government has passed no policy or program that could conceivably have had any meaningful impact on GDP, unemployment or similar indexes of economic health. The regulatory reform basically amounts to a bunch of executive orders, which the president is extremely fond of signing … and which the next Democratic president will almost certainly cancel with an equal and opposite executive order. Fair enough, though, the appointment of Neil Gorsuch was, no question, a big conservative win.

Balanced against all this winning, though, is quite a bit of losing. Most prominently is the gobsmacking self-immolation of the GOP’s healthcare plans, the inability of the majority party to deliver on the most prominent and central legislative goal it has sought and promised for nearly a decade. Trump also seems to be losing Congress more generally. Congress passed sanctions against Russia against the president’s wishes and groups of legislators are tentatively starting to hash out bipartisan health care options without his support or blessing.  Indeed, members of his own party increasingly are giving signs they are simply willing to ignore what the president wants, and given that his poll numbers have fallen lower than coalmine canaries, you can hardly blame them. Even the Gorsuch victory might exact a steep, albeit long-term, price. Getting that win required torpedoing Merrick Garland’s nomination on pretty shaky constitutional grounds, torching a set of senatorial norms, and putting up with the unsettling sound of seriously steamed Democrats constantly sharpening knives behind closed doors. When that go around comes around, and this being politics it surely will, Dems will have no compunction about wielding their obsessively stropped blades to slice off a vengeful pound or two of GOP flesh.

The growing internecine GOP catfights over the party’s plans, not to mention the increasing questions from within its own ranks of its capability to carry them out, are not good news for those of us who want government to work regardless of who is in charge of it. The chances seem slim that the Republican Party is going to improve on its lamentable six-month record as a mostly incompetent governing force. Priebus’ assessment of necessary sacrifices yielding a string of sterling successes is less a case of looking at the world with rose colored glasses than suffering the political equivalent of hysterical blindness. And maybe that’s not surprising. Over the past year he has repeatedly shown himself to be a pollyannaish Trump/party hybrid, a Toyota Priebus that turned out to get lousy mileage. He lasted only six months in service to House Trump, and spent most of that playing Theon Greyjoy to the president’s Ramsey Bolton in the White House’s revolving Game of Drones.

Still, Priebus’ historical analogy for the GOP may touch closer to reality than he realizes. The Republican Party was sitting pretty in 1928. It controlled both houses of Congress and the White House, and was confident that its pro-business agenda would deliver the goods for the citizenry and keep it in power. Things didn’t quite work out that way. A year later the economy tanked, and the Republican president (Herbert Hoover) and the GOP congressional majorities came to be viewed by the populace as the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. In 1932 FDR got elected and, with a couple of odd exceptions here and there, the Democratic Party basically enjoyed sixty years of electoral dominance.

If it’s really 1928 all over again, maybe the Republican Party should stop all the Priebus-like counting of its wins and get its act together. If it doesn’t, it’s going to get tired of all that winning much sooner than later.

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.


Kansas Comes to its Senses

There’s a general consensus among professional observers of politics that the federal government is, to use the correct technical term, ate up with dumb ass. POTUS is potty, Congress is cuckoo, and partisanship has gone postal. Maybe so, but there are some hopeful signs down at the state level that all the insane-in-the-membrane political fever is breaking.

Case in point is Kansas. Five years ago, Gov. Sam Brownback led a mostly successful charge to fully implement the low tax, small government political agenda long lusted after by Milton Friedman fanboys, Laffer Curve libertarians, and Koch brothers conservatives. The basic plan was to free Kansas entrepreneurs from the shackles of onerous (or even any) taxation, and they’d use the extra dough to unleash innovation, create jobs and usher in a new era of prosperity and plenty for the Sunflower State.  It didn’t happen. They just stopped paying taxes. And the government went broke. Go figure.

What was truly looney about Kansas’ whole hog embrace of right-wing economic policy was not that they tried it. What the heck, you never know unless you try. Well, they tried. And tried. And tried. And the same thing happened every stinkin’ year—the government sank one level deeper into the budgetary doo-doo. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then the Kansas government was clinically deranged.

For years, Brownback and his troops insisted things were going to get better. Any day now, the low tax economic miracle would arrive and, hoo-boy, wouldn’t those smug so-and-sos in the states surrounding Kansas be sorry they hadn’t followed suit. While Kansas government sank a full fathoms five into the financial ooze, those other states were foolishly taxing their citizens and throwing away that money on functioning public education systems, decent roads, and a modicum of fiduciary responsibility. Like any of that’s going to underpin economic growth. Suckers.

Unfortunately for Brownback the electorate got tired of waiting for his fiscal Godot to show up. After half-a-decade of watching its government madly clicking its Ruby Red supply-side slippers and leaving them all down at the heels, Kansans had finally had enough. Last election they bounced the Brownback/Tea Party wing of the GOP out on its behind and elected just enough moderate Republicans and Democrats to give common sense a fighting chance in the state legislature. And fight it did. The Kansas legislature passed legislation that, more or less, said, “the nut jobbery stops now.” Brownback vetoed it. The legislature—just—overrode the veto a couple of weeks ago.

The return of common sense was greeted glumly in some quarters. Some could of this could be chalked up to supply side true believers like Brownback, who kept begging everyone to keep chugging the Kool Aid because, seriously guys, just two more swallows we’ll all be piddling rainbows. It was celebrated by others, and not always in a sporting way. The schadenfreude squad was out in full force, and a lot of tut-tutting and told-you-sos could be heard coming from the neighborhood Keynesians. The lesson they are drawing is that you don’t boost an economy by destroying the state’s ability to provide the public goods and services that make it possible.

That’s a perfectly reasonable inference, but I seriously doubt Kansas’ experience will impart any universally agreed upon economic wisdom to the left or right. Conservatives will insist the underlying logic was sound, it was just the execution that was off. Maybe it would’ve worked if Kansas had not just cut taxes, but also stopped squandering the few dollars it did have on frou-frou like roads and teachers, and then cut all corporate regulation down to a single, voluntary “try not to kill anyone” rule of thumb. Liberals will likely infer the conservatives had the causal logic backwards. Clearly, if you cut taxes the economy tanks, ergo the best way to boost economic fortunes is to tax the snot out of everything. Thus we should start a vigorous program of taxing and spending and beggar government in the usual way. It’s tradition for chrissakes.

While it’s not likely to resolve partisan differences on economic policy, there is a political lesson that will—or at least should—be crystal clear from the Kansas experience. To wit: If you’ve got the chutzpah you can get away with promising the electorate caviar while feeding them horse shit. But you better be careful. By the third or fourth course, even some of the ideological faithful are going to start noticing those sturgeon’s eggs smack of horse flop. That tends to take the shine off a policy agenda and leave the voters with a very bad taste in their mouths.

And that, funnily enough, is about as hopeful a message as you’ll find in American politics these days. The big news from Kansas is not the epic failure of its self-proclaimed, “real live experiment” on the Republican Party’s most cherished economic prescription, though fail it did. The big news is that the electorate took note of the failure. Alternative-facts didn’t muscle out the actual evidence, and voters not only called BS they actually backed candidates for office—mostly moderate Republicans—whose prudence-to-piffle ratio promised a more centrist, reality-based notion of governance. This is not an occasion to get too misty eyed about the innate wisdom of the people. Let’s not forget this is the same group who for years happily noshed on Brownback’s equine butt pucks and trotted off to the polls to vote for seconds.

But there’s still some glimmer of hope there. Voters did, eventually, notice that their government was inept on a colossal scale and, just, did something about it before their chief executive carted them all the way to crazy town. Hopefully that’s a lesson from Kansas the rest of the country can learn from.