Monthly Archives: May 2012

What am I doing this summer?

I tend to get this question a lot now that the semester is over. Contrary to popular perception, college professors do manage to stay busy even when classes are out for the summer. For those of you who are curious what a liberal arts professor does in the summertime, here’s my list:

  • Write a paper to present at a conference in September. (This includes doing a literature review, data analysis, and about 30+ pages of writing.)
  • Composing an outline for a research project that might take place this fall in collaboration with one of my colleagues here at Centre.
  • Doing a literature review for another paper that I might be writing later this fall (assuming no one has already written on the topic!).
  • Reviewing textbooks, drafting assignments, and putting together a syllabus for three different classes that I’ll be teaching in the fall.
  • Reading a series of books that might make their way into syllabi for the courses I have scheduled in the winter and spring terms.
  • Making preliminary arrangements for the field trip in my winter term class.
  • Grading AP American Government exams for a week in June.
  • Prepping for the next Boyle County Exit Poll project this November (drafting questions, meeting with the County Clerk, organizing schedules, etc.).
  • Helping organize the fall “faculty retreat” that will take place in August here at Centre.
  • Reviewing and drafting revisions to the GOV program assessment and curriculum documents.

That’s about it for now! Fortunately, I have a talented undergraduate student helping me with some of the research projects.

Review: “It’s Even Worse Than it Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism”

This is a short, accessible, and comprehensive overview of the current state of polarization and dysfunction in the U.S. Congress. The authors are two recognized Congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein. I’m making this book assigned reading in my class on Congress next January during CentreTerm.

The authors start by describing some examples of what they call “the new politics of hostage taking” where a super-majority is required to do anything in Congress and where the minority has gotten in the habit of threatening to shut down the government and bring down the economy unless they get what they want. (Chapter 1)

How did it get to be like this? They basically pin the blame on Newt Gingrich in the late 1980s and his strategy to incorporate parliamentary-type tactics and de-legitimize political opponents. Over the last three decades these strategies have come to be accepted as normal and appropriate. This was compounded by the widening ideological polarization and partisan/geographical sorting of the two major political parties over the last few decades. We now live in a world where there is no ideological overlap between the two major parties and where partisans essentially adhere to completely different worldviews and have different standards of what they accept as legitimate, fact, and reality. It becomes difficult to find common ground in situations like this. (Chapter 2)

As they put it: “a fundamental problem is the mismatch between parliamentary-style political parties (ideologically polarized, internally unified, vehemently oppositional, and politically strategic) that has emerged in recent years and a separation-of-powers system that makes it extremely difficult for majorities to work their will” (page 102).

In chapters 4-7, the authors give recommendations for what they think can or should be done to help repair the extreme dysfunction in Congress. These solutions range from large (turn our government into a parliamentary system) to small (limit filibusters to one per bill). There are some interesting proposals that are certainly worth consideration. If enacted, they would undoubtedly do much to alleviate today’s extreme state of legislative gridlock.

As I tend to be cynical by nature, however, I can’t say that I think there’s a remote chance that any of their proposals (even the small ones) will be adopted any time in the near future. Even if they were enacted, their recommendations will merely minimize the secondary effects of the polarization without getting to its root cause, which they identify in Chapter 2 as the ideological/partisan self-sorting that has occurred in America over the last three decades. In my view, we the public are responsible for the cause, while politicians merely take advantage of and intensify the effect. 

To me, the only long-term hope for changing the new politics of gridlock and polarization is for some new, major issue to emerge in the American political landscape that will create new ideological coalitions, making the Democratic and Republican constituencies more ideologically diverse. The last time this happened was in the late 1960s/early 1970s when the seeds of the current polarization began. Only when the partisan constituencies diversify will elected officials be incentivized to pursue more moderate, diverse policies and once again value compromise and results over gridlock and polarization. I hope this comes sooner rather than later.

CBO report warns against planned spending cuts

I offer this without comment:

A new government report said spending cuts scheduled to go into effect in 2013, coupled with the simultaneous expiration of Bush-era tax cuts, will shrink the U.S. economy and raise unemployment — contradicting the Republican claim that reducing the federal budget deficit will spur economic growth.

The Congressional Budget Office report, released on Tuesday, estimated that the policies slated to kick in on Jan. 1 would slash the deficit and shrink the national economy by 1.3 percent during the first half of next year, likely throwing the country over a “fiscal cliff” into another recession. …

The CBO report offers a stark contrast to a standard Republican argument. While Republicans frequently target President Barack Obama for the approximately $5 trillion increase in federal debt since he took office in 2009, this report suggested that rapid deficit reduction would cause short-term harm to the economic recovery.

Full article here:

Fox News also produced a similar report:

Some statistics from yesterday’s primary election

From the Kentucky State Board of Elections:

  • Voter turnout: 13.8%
  • Voter turnout in Boyle County: 7.3%
  • GOP primary: Romney 66.8%, Paul 12.3%, Santorum 8.9%, Gingrich 6.0%
  • GOP primary: counties won by Romney 119, counties won by Paul 1
  • GOP primary (Boyle county): Romney 66.8%, Paul 14.7%, Santorum 10.2%, Gingrich 4.3%
  • Democratic primary: Obama 57.6%, “uncommitted” 42.2%
  • Democratic primary: counties won by President Obama 54, counties won by “uncommitted” 66 (Obama tended to win central Kentucky while “uncommitted” carried eastern and western Kentucky)
  • Democratic primary (Boyle county): 56.9%, “uncommitted” 43.1%

“Q&A: Political experts chime in on vice-presidential contenders”

David Brock published an article in today’s Advocate-Messenger featuring a Q&A with three “political watchers” about Romney’s VP decision-making process: Larry Sabato, Stephen Voss, and yours truly (not bad company for me!). The full article is available here:,0,4723250,full.story

Danville city commission following the letter, but not the spirit, of the council-manager system

The Advocate-Messenger had a rather blistering editorial about the Danville city commission in the newspaper this weekend. Speaking about the recent decision to hire interim Ron Scott as the new city manager after conducting a nation-wide search:

It was all a big lie. They — specifically the slim majority of Bernie Hunstad, Gail Louis and Ryan Montgomery — never intended to respect the actions of the so-called “benchmark” and “citizens” committees they created and that they used to try to smokescreen the predetermined outcome. The whole process was so transparent it was laughable. They never intended to operate the city in the spirit of the law that defines a city manager form of government, even though they told the voters during the campaign that they would.

As I’ve written before, elections have consequences. In my opinion, what the city council did was not inappropriate from a purely political perspective. When a new president, Congress, governor, or state legislature is elected, they pursue policies in line with their preferences. That’s how we pursue political objectives in a democracy – if you have the votes you can control the agenda and achieve your political goals. There are five votes on the city commission. A majority has a similar set of policy preferences. We should not be surprised that they act to bring about those preferences when they have the votes to do so. That’s politics.

The controversy emerges, then, when we take a normative position about what a  council-manager system – the type that Danville currently has – “ought” to be.  These types of systems were designed specifically to minimize the effect of partisan politics in local government. By transferring executive power to a professional city manager, it was thought that this would remove much of the opportunity for corruption and partisan influence in the legislative branch (the city council). This is the “spirit” of the council-manager form of government. By their recent actions, it seems that the current city commission in Danville does not prefer that particular interpretation of the purpose of the council-manager system. As the editorial points out, they are behaving in the “spirit” of a mayor-council system while technically adhering to the “letter” of the council-manager system.

Now, my current objective is not to pass judgment on the commission’s actions, but rather to provide some perspective. There are many advantages to a mayor-council system, many of which I teach about in my State and Local Politics course. Different systems work better in different communities. For better or worse, though, Danville voters have twice voted to keep the council-manager form of government. Normatively-speaking, that might provide sufficient justification for our elected officials to be expected to follow the “spirit” of such a system.

Whether deserved or not, the majority in the Danville city commission has had a “P.R.” problem for about a year now, starting when they fired the former city manager Paul Stansbury. There were charges from some in the community of corruption and cronyism. (Again, I am not taking a side as to the validity of those charges, but it’s a fact that they were made.) As last November’s exit poll revealed, Danville voters disapproved of the commission’s decision by a 25-point margin.

Last week the city commission had the opportunity to address these charges and critiques by hiring an outside candidate for the city manager position, someone without a history of connections in Danville or subject to suspicions of political connections, etc. They chose, however, not to take advantage of this opportunity. It may very well be the case that Mr. Scott was the best-qualified individual for the position. (I did not review the applications personally so I don’t know.) Some of those involved with reviewing the applications, though, have indicated that there were several others who were suitable for the position. 

In summary, I personally am not surprised, nor do I think it objectively inappropriate from a purely political perspective, that the city commission chose to hire Mr. Scott as our new city manager. That’s politics! When you have the votes you can get your way. That’s why we now have curbside recycling and a new city hall building – the previous commission had the votes and got it done.

If you disagree from a normative standpoint, however, and believe that the current city commission is violating the “spirit” of a council-manager type system, the best thing to do would be to identify candidates who tend to agree with the minority (Mr. Caudill and Mr. Atkins) and do your best to get them voted into office to replace Mr. Montgomery and Ms. Louis this November. Until then, we shouldn’t be surprised that those we voted in the last election are trying their best to pursue their preferences.

Centre debate gear!

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