My reactions to the June 27, 2019 Democratic presidential debate (night 2 of 2)

Assorted thoughts and reactions, in no particular order or connective theme except loosely in terms of how the topics came up chronologically in the debate:

Good question from the moderators to Hickenlooper: asking him to clarify just what he understands “socialism” to be. In general, the Democratic party has done a poor job of answering charges of “socialism” from Republicans. He missed a good opportunity here. It shouldn’t be hard, but Democrats are gun-shy to argue the semantics of the word “socialism.” Given that it’ll be a key Republican talking point in the 2020 election, I think they should start trying.

So far Gillibrand has struggled to catch much attention or momentum. She used her first time to speak to try out a theme to help her stand out from the rest: saying that she’ll be the compromise candidate between the moderate liberals and liberal liberals. (It reminded me of 2007 when Bill Richardson said something like “Obama represents change, Clinton represents experience. With Bill Richardson, you get both!”) I don’t know that she was able to do much in this debate, though, to get more visibility going into future debates, which is a shame because she’s a sharp and talented senator.

Harris’s rhetorical strategy seems to be to tell stories (both in this debate as well as her stump speeches). All candidates do this, of course, but she’s doing it more effectively and frequently than the other candidates. This is smart. People are more likely to be persuaded by stories about people than data and policy details (as much as I love data and policy details…). Also, good for her for, respectfully but firmly, sharing an example of how she stood up to the Obama administration’s immigration policies on the Secure Communities program. And then BAM that was a gutsy move taking on Biden, respectfully but firmly, on the issue of busing using her own personal story. The other candidates were gun-shy in drawing sharp contrasts with Biden. She took the risk. Up until now she was struggling to get bandwidth between the 300 different candidates but my strong hunch is that now she’s going to own the headlines for the next week. Good for her! 

Buttigieg’s first answer was interesting, emphasizing that “it should be affordable not to go to college.” He later deliberately drew a connection between faith/religion and immigration. He is intentionally deciding not to make coastal secular liberals his primary constituency and to emphasize how he might be appealing to the Obama-Trump voters. Also, he singled out a very important geopolitical issue: China’s authoritarian system and how it’s increasingly gaining in popularity worldwide in comparison with America’s democratic political system that seems so “chaotic” lately (as he put it). Also, when asked about their ONE first issue that they’d do on Day One, his answer matched what I would have said: electoral reform.

In the first half of the debate, Sanders came off to me as even more aggressive and domineering than he did even in the 2016 primary debates against Hillary Clinton. He used his loud voice to wedge himself in and talk over those standing next to him, especially Harris and Gillibrand, several times. I’ll admit: this reminded me of Trump’s style in the 2016 GOP debates against his primary opponents. That said, in the second half he pulled back and his demeanor changed significantly.

I think Biden had a bad night compared to what he was hoping for. He’s leading by a lot in the polls and it’d be easy for him to coast to the nomination, but he didn’t have any strong “break out” moments and didn’t have a great response to Harris’s point about busing. If he weren’t the former vice president, I wouldn’t have been able to distinguish him much from any of the other generic moderate Democrats in the race. And I say this as someone who has a lot of respect for him as a former U.S. vice president to Barack Obama for eight years.

This debate format (10 candidates, 2 hours, 45-ish seconds per answer per candidate) is ridiculous and not very useful. I’m glad that the DNC will be tightening up the qualifications for participation in the next round of debates a little bit. This needs to get narrowed down and fast. 

While it’s difficult to have a substantive policy debate with this type of format, it is useful for revealing how candidates perform in a high-stress/high-stakes situation, which gives clues about how they might keep calm under pressure, respond to the “3 AM phone call” with a foreign policy crisis, and maintain a cool head in a highly-stressful environment. Harris, Gillibrand, Biden, and Buttigieg struck me as having a stronger performance on this end. Sanders did not.

Policy questions are great, but this debate format is an ineffective forum to have a productive discussion on policy details AND unless they get a Democratic Senate, none of them are going to be able to get much movement on any of these policies anyways. Better debate questions might be: “tell about a time when you had to make an exceptionally difficult decision” or “what would you be willing to give up in a compromise with Senate Republicans to achieve your key policy goals?” or “how do you deal with stress and anxiety?” or “what values would you prioritize and promote on the global stage as U.S. president?” 

I didn’t see much tonight to justify further consideration of: Williamson, Hickenlooper, Bennet, Swalwell, and Yang. For Hickenlooper and Bennet, it’s a bit of a shame. They’re both smart and talented public servants, but I didn’t see much to justify the “added value” of continuing to have them in the debate.

What do I want to see the candidates talking about? RANKED CHOICE VOTING FOR FEDERAL OFFICES! That one single electoral reform could do more to help reduce polarization and improve the quality of our democratic politics than anything else that anyone is talking about right now. Pete Buttigieg comes closest to talking about it, but because it’s not a sexy issue, no one is putting it high on their list. It’s a state-level issue, but the federal government could certainly incentivize states to adopt ranked choice voting for federal offices by use of grants or other means.

My reactions to the June 26, 2019 Democratic presidential debate (night 1 of 2)

A few things right off the bat:

  • Presidential debates are generally more educational than they are persuasive. In other words, they are more effective at helping voters learn more about the candidates and their platforms than they are changing people’s minds about which candidate they support. That said, early primary debates tend to be both educational and persuasive because fewer voters have well-formed opinions about the various candidates. Given that, primary debates are arguably more useful to voters than general election debates.
  • The media narrative that emerges in the days following the debates is often more influential on opinions toward the candidates than any specific thing that the candidates say. So I’ll be curious to see how this is spun in the next 24 hours.
  • At this point in the game, most people paying attention are those with high levels of political interest and political activists in early primary states, so candidates are framing their arguments as much for the party activists and highly-engaged voters as potential general election voters at this point.

 

The first twenty minutes or so was a round-robin on assorted policy questions. In one way or another, most of the candidates emphasized something designed to appeal to the working class in rural parts of the country (strengthening unions, manufacturing jobs, green energy jobs, etc.). This suggests to me that an early shared strategy among whoever emerges as the Democratic nominee will be focusing on winning back those Obama-Trump voters that proved pivotal in the upper-midwest to winning the Electoral College.

The next section focused on health care plans. Given that none of them will be able to get their plan passed unless Democrats win the Senate and keep the House and eliminate the legislative filibuster (or ram through another health care bill using the Senate reconciliation process like Obama did with the ACA), this question is more useful to show the general governing philosophy of each candidate. Warren and de Blasio both enthusiastically said “sure, let’s eliminate private health care systems and move everyone over to a government plan in 4 years” while others (Klobuchar, Delaney, etc.) focused on the reality that such a goal is very, very, very, very unlikely to happen given the political realities of our current system, and so have less-ambitious-but-more-likely-to-pass incremental proposals. This suggests how they’d approach governing strategies in other pursuing other legislative goals or societal problems.

Nobody had a great answer for what they would do if Republicans keep the Senate in terms of getting their policy platform passed. Warren’s answer that “the fight goes on” means, I’m inferring, mobilizing public opinion to put pressure on Congress to pass her plans. While logical, all recent political history suggests that this is very, very unlikely to be a successful strategy. Delaney and Klobuchar emphasized that they would deal with a Republican Senate by proposing measures that some Republicans might actually support, although due to partisan polarization congressional Republicans will likely oppose whatever a Democratic president proposes. On principle, I support getting rid of the filibuster altogether (regardless of which party is in control of the Senate), which Castro and Booker both seemed to tacitly endorse and Inslee explicitly endorsed.

Did any of them stand out or differentiate themselves? Meh. They all more or less agree on most things and have similar policy proposals on things like income inequality, immigration, climate change, etc. The health care policy contrast was interesting for what it suggested about governing style, same with the questions about the filibuster and getting a legislative agenda passed.

Of the various candidates polling near zero, I didn’t see much in the debate to persuade me to invest more time in: Ryan, de Blasio, Inslee, Gabbard. On the other hand, I didn’t know much about Delaney before the debate and his answers were generally more impressive to me in terms of policy details, pragmatism, clarity, etc. Also, Julián Castro should be getting more support than he currently is: he’s a solid candidate with strong policy credentials and political skills. Otherwise, I thought that Warren, O’Rourke, Klobuchar, and Booker more or less maintained the status quo, but the media narrative that emerges on Thursday may change that. 

 

Ranking the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates: Round 1

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[Photo credit]

TL;DR: on the eve of the first round of Democratic 2020 presidential primary debates, I’m putting Harris, Booker, and Buttigieg in Tier 1, Klobuchar and Biden in Tier 2, Warren in Tier 3, and O’Rourke and Sanders in Tiers 4 and 5, respectively.

 

A few years back I wrote a blog post on the topic of “who would do a ‘good job’ as president.” Criteria included assessments of official constitutional duties as well as informal roles that the U.S. president has taken on over time. Here I’m updating this list for 2020 and taking it a step further and including some criteria that I personally believe to be important but I think that reasonable people can disagree on:

  1. Foreign policy expertise/experience: U.S. presidents face huge constraints in terms of enacting their domestic legislative agenda but have wide latitude to act when it comes to foreign policy. In my view, one of the highest priorities for a president at this moment in history is to prioritize strengthening the liberal international order, repairing our damaged international democratic alliances, defending democracy and human rights both at home and abroad. Or at the very least, actively embracing the radical idea that democratic allies = good, authoritarian dictators = bad.
  2. Cognitive complexity: being president is a really, really, really hard job. I personally think that the person doing this job should be able to skillfully and systematically analyze extremely complex issues while recognizing that the world is a complicated and nuanced place where the “right” thing to do is often subjective and elusive.
  3. Populism: personally speaking, I am extremely wary of populism as a political style, both on the right as well as the left. Populists gain support and popularity by identifying a sub-group of the population as the “enemy” (often an intellectual, political, or economic elite) that threatens the well-being of the “real people” who are noble and virtuous. They tend to sprinkle their rhetoric with words like “corrupt,” “rigged,” “enemy,” etc. It is possible for populists to embrace and respect liberal democratic norms and institutions, but very often they do not. I am wary of populism.
  4. Background/experience: all other things being equal, I think it’s an advantage for the U.S. president to have some previous experience as an elected official, preferably at the federal level, so that they have a realistic appreciation of the constraints that they will be working with. I also see it as an advantage if this person’s background and life experience provided some basis for appreciating the experiences and perspectives of people from disadvantaged or marginalized groups.
  5. Realistic plan of action: presidential candidates promise the moon, knowing full well that they ultimately can’t single-handedly impose their policy agenda like an autocrat. I think it’s important for presidential candidates to give a realistic explanation of how they plan to implement their policy priorities, especially through Congress. When pressed, very few presidential candidates have a feasible plan for passing their agenda if, for example, they face a Congress from the opposing party who doesn’t want them score legislative victories.

Taking that all into account, here is my first round of rankings of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, to be updated periodically throughout the primary election season. Right now I’m limiting my rankings to those who are consistently polling above 1%, other candidates have many admirable points in their favor but are having a hard time breaking out of the 0% zone.

 

TIER 1: HARRIS, BOOKER, BUTTIGIEG

KAMALA HARRIS:

  • PRO: Of the various criteria I outlined above, she is strong on all of them except foreign policy expertise. I’m a fan of her LIFT Act proposal to tackle poverty head-on. I appreciate that she is methodical and deliberate in her decision-making style. She could be a formidable “consensus” candidate between various factions of the Democratic Party.
  • CON: Little foriegn policy experience/expertise, but her time on the Senate Homeland Security and Intelligence Committees could compensate somewhat for that.

CORY BOOKER:

  • PRO: The thing that stands out for me is Booker’s rhetorical style that emphasizes unity, inclusivity, and a politics of “radical love,” which could be a good change coming from a president (the chief political representative of our culture and values). His Baby Bonds anti-poverty proposal is a great idea. And it doesn’t hurt that he’s a huge Star Trek geek.
  • CON: He has little foreign policy experience/expertise, although his time on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee might give him a leg up.

PETE BUTTIGIEG:

  • PRO: Impressive resume for someone who is only one year older than me. I’m particularly impressed by his academic training in foreign affairs, his military service, and his previous work experience with “big data” science and the ways of thinking about the social world that comes with it. He is one of the few candidates who is actively proposing creative ideas to reform our electoral institutions in a way that will help reduce polarization and paralysis.  
  • CON: Zero electoral experience at the national level and South Bend local politics are very, very different from those of the U.S. federal government.

 

TIER 2: KLOBUCHAR, BIDEN

AMY KLOBUCHAR:

  • PRO: For me, the key selling point for her is that she is, above all, a pragmatist. She doesn’t make pie-in-the-sky promises about what she’ll do if elected. Instead, she focuses on incremental, but arguably more achievable, objectives that might stand a chance of passing through Congress.
  • CON: Very, very little foreign policy experience.

JOE BIDEN:

  • PRO: He has, by far, the most foreign policy expertise and experience of all the candidates running (including the current incumbent president). If elected, I hope he would prioritize repairing our relationships with democratic allies abroad and promoting human rights in authoritarian regimes, as that is where he would likely accomplish the most long-term and effective change. While Senate Republicans would still fight him tooth and nail on every policy proposal, his extensive background and personal relationships with them might result in an occasional compromise.
  • CON: I am not impressed with how he is dodging interview requests, town hall events, and generally not making himself as available to the media as the other candidates. Also, he is the wrong candidate for the #MeToo era.

 

TIER 3: ELIZABETH WARREN

  • PRO: She has the most extensive and well thought-out policy proposals of any of the current candidates. By far. Her academic background is a big plus.  
  • CON: Her rhetoric and stump speeches frequently invoke populist notes (as noted by no less than Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson), although not to the same degree as Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. She has also intimated that she will “fight dirty” against a Mitch McConnell Senate, returning in kind the not-technically-illegal-or-unconstitutional-but-norm-defying-and-democracy-damaging strategies that McConnell has employed the last several years.

 

TIER 4: BETO O’ROURKE

  • PRO: He is making electoral reform a high priority in his stump speeches.
  • CON: His personal interviews often give the impression that he can be an impulsive decision-maker and perhaps a bit of a lightweight when it comes to substance and style.

 

TIER 5: BERNIE SANDERS

  • PRO: He has improved his foreign policy chops (a little) since the 2016 primary.
  • CON: He is a populist through-and-through with little foreign policy experience and does a poor job of explaining the nuances between “socialism,” “democratic socialism,” “social democracy,” and “authoritarian socialism” to a public that is skeptical of the word “socialism.” When pressed, his plan for passing his agenda is “The Revolution” which I think means persuading the public to sweep like-minded democratic socialists into filibuster-proof majorities in Congress. Color me skeptical.

 

 

My reactions to President Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address

Here are a smattering of my reactions to the president’s 2019 State of the Union address, in no particular order:

I will admit being pleasantly surprised by the first half hour or so of the president’s address. He used traditional civic rhetoric that hearkened to lofty ideals about American values and identity. I appreciated his shout-outs to the D-Day veterans and Buzz Aldrin. His positive words toward criminal justice reform, slow-but-steady economic growth, and (later in the speech) childhood cancer, HIV, children, paid family leave, etc. all conform to what is traditionally expected from a U.S. head of state in a situation like this. This was the type of rhetoric that we’d expect from an otherwise “normal” president. Perhaps this is a preview of a new “softer, gentler Trump” approach that he’ll be trying out for the 2020 campaign? (My strong hunch, based on previous experience, is that he lacks the self-control to keep it up longer than a day or two, but I could be wrong!)

The president made good points about economic figures during his administration. He should be grateful for them. The current state of the economy is what’s keeping his approval rating in the low-40s. If an economic recession hits he’ll likely sink into the 30s or 20s.

At the half hour mark, the president took a strong turn in a nativist direction talking about immigration and border security, etc. I’ve talked about this issue at length previously so I won’t rehash it all here, but in a nutshell: I think reasonable people can disagree about the merits of border security and the most efficient and responsible way to handle immigration… but the rhetoric that the president to describe the immigration “onslaught” simply does not match even a generous interpretation of the facts on the ground about recent immigration rates and the link between immigration and crime rates. This does not surprise me, though, as this has been a central part of the president’s campaign and platform for the past three years. This is the issue that motivates the president’s core base and it makes sense that he would continue to beat the drum on this, despite its highly dubious foundations in objective reality. (Just a few examples of the disconnect between the president’s rhetoric and reality on immigration: here and here.)

“If I had not been elected president, we would right now be in a major war with North Korea.” I look forward to seeing how the historians discuss that line in their future biographies of the president.

The president’s rhetoric about denouncing anti-Semitism might carry more moral force if he hadn’t declined to reject endorsements from David Duke and the KKK, not to mention praising “some” members of the Charlottesville 2017 white supremacy gathering as “very fine people.”

“Democratic socialism” is NOT the same thing as “Soviet/authoritarian socialism.” To conflate the two is understandable for those who don’t study the nuances of political ideologies, but is (in my view) a strawman argument and lazy thinking. The “socialism” that the president is referring to is “democratic socialism” which is basically just “hyper-liberalism” and is not the same thing as authoritarianism. (See more here.) Democratic socialism is certainly an ideology worth debating, of course, but everyone would do better to know what they’re talking about before denouncing it. That all said, I think there’s an obligation for self-described Democratic Socialists to do more to explain to the public how they are different than other types of socialists, because it’s not obvious or intuitive.

Good for the president for praising women in the workforce and in Congress. I hope that his rhetoric will begin to reflect more respect for women, both in wider society and personally. His rhetoric throughout his life, during the campaign, and early in his presidency has not conveyed the same respect for women that was communicated in his address.

In sum: this speech suggests to me that Donald Trump is certainly capable of bipartisanship and keeping his rhetoric within the boundaries of normal political traditions and expectations. Given his past behavior, however, I will be surprised to see this style of rhetoric survive past the end of the speech. That said, I could be wrong.

Finally, here’s a good summary of the political science research on the effect of State of the Union addresses: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/3-reasons-that-state-of-the-union-speeches-dont-matter/

 

Sabbatical reading summaries: political science and sociology books

As part of my Fall 2019 research sabbatical, I was able to get caught up on some of the more popular and influential political science and sociology academic books published in the last two years. Here are some highlights from several of them:

Uncivil Agreement by Liliana Mason: a basic overview on how partisans are sorted and the social psychology behind it (social identity theory, affective partisanship, etc.) as well as some ideas on how to fix it. Good for undergrads at intro level.

The Great Alignment by Alan Abramowitz: an update of his 2012 book Polarized Public, but the argument is mostly the same. Partisans are sorted and polarized and this drives elite polarization. It’s about ideology, race, religion, and geography. Includes a chapter on transformation of New Deal coalition to now and another on the 2016 election and the role of racial resentment.

Neither Liberal nor Conservative by Donald Kinder and Nathan Kalmoe: basically, Converse is still right and most Americans don’t think in ideological terms. They don’t well know the difference between the two. A quarter ID as nothing and half say they’re moderate. Ideology has little effect on voting or other attitudes after PID is controlled for. Instead, Americans think in terms of groups and attachment to groups.

Do Facts Matter? by Jennifer Hochschild and Einstein: an examination of the normative importance of knowing right information and acting on it for democratic citizenship. Relies on about ten different case studies of both Democrats and Republicans getting wrong information and not caring or doing anything about it. Better for graduate students or advanced undergraduates.

The Increasingly United States by Daniel Hopkins: people used to behave differently at the local than national level. Over the last several decades local and state parties have increasingly come to mirror the national parties and also voters tend to vote much more consistently along party lines. So now there are few split ticket voters. Why? Nationalization of media, decline of local news coverage, etc. Also has worrying implications for democratic responsiveness at the local level. Great text for a class on federalism or local politics.

Democracy in America by Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens: their key argument is that government is responsive to wealthy and interest groups but not average Americans due to the influence of money and time and making it hard for people to come into the system. First part: covers realities and contexts of economic inequality. Then they make several policy recommendations; then argue for a mass movement to achieve it. Good for presenting an economic explanation of inequality and American gridlock and polarization. Good to consider for those skeptical of inequality.

Democracy for Realists by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels: basically, a big test of how democracy is “supposed” to work according to romantic visions, then an account of how it actually works.
1. Most Americans don’t think ideologically (Converse)
2. Most Americans are uninformed
3. More opportunities for democratic participation won’t be taken advantage of: most people just don’t want to participate
4. Retrospective voting
5. Voters don’t assign blame very well, making it hard to be accountable
6. Voters do economic voting, but only in the few months before an election
7. More assault on retrospective voting theory
8. Better model: group attachment. Group loyalties drive politics
9. Survey of group behavior 1960s-present
10. Our view of reality is shaped by these partisan lenses
11. View for the future
This is a great book for a voter behavior upper-level course. There is a LOT of classic texts and concepts that would otherwise be in a standard textbook, except it’s better written.

The Polarizers by Sam Rosenfeld: the narrative story of the emergence of American polarization from FDR through 2000. Focuses on people, parties, historical development, etc. Very little about time from 2000 onward. This would be good if a good historical narrative were called for.

From Politics to Pews by Michele Margolis: how politics is affecting religion in American society. Lifecycle effect: most kids drop out of religious participation in early adulthood or adolescence. If they get married and have kids, they usually drop back in, and their choice of congregation will be based on their political views, not vice versa. Moreso the case for better educated people; doesn’t happen as much with blacks; happened in 1960 election.

Uninformed by Skip Lupia: this is a how-to manual on how to increase teaching effectiveness when it comes to civics. Highlights include: 1) attach information to core concerns and perceived needs of students for desired skills, 2) you’re more efficient if they perceive your goals as similar to theirs. Show them how your interest in the material aligns with their interests. Try to emphasize shared in-group status. 3) frame the information in a way that aligns with student’s core values – it’ll be more likely to succeed, 4) cues and shortcuts are efficient and okay! 5) offer information that is helpful to increase a knowledge that the student views as valued and that they view as helpful to attain a goal. 6) focus on skills of citizenship over factual recall. 7) information is valuable to the extent to which it can be used. So… what information is valuable to produce usable knowledge in the skills we hope to promote with our students? What do we want them to be able to do?

Unequal and Unrepresented by Kay Schlozman, Henry Brady, and Sidney Verba: an overview of how political voice is distributed in the U.S. There is a persistent class bias both in participation and responsiveness. Interest groups don’t correct for that. And current inequality sometimes makes things worse but sometimes not. And most ways to fix it usually don’t work, so the class bias seems to be a core feature for now.

Anti-Pluralism by William Galston: written by a non-polemic conservative, an overview of what liberal democracy is and why it’s important, what the major threats are today, and an assessment of the U.S. and Trump. Focuses on both cultural and economic factors. And spends time at the end on “great man” leadership and character (something conservatives are generally responsive to).

Suicide of the West by Jonah Goldberg: first 2/3 is his version of Sapiens by Yuval Harari, the grand meta narrative of evolution and civilization and politics through the modern age. Last third is his critique of modern politics — welfare state liberals, identity politics liberals, populist Trump conservatives, etc.

The People vs Democracy by Yascha Mounk: really good overview of the rise of populism and the threat to liberal democracy. Defines liberal democracy really well and also focuses on illiberal democracy as well as undemocratic liberalism (European technocracy) and how they’re both problematic. Gives a fair shake to immigration, free speech, identity politics, etc. No sympathy for Trumpism. More detailed than Galston book and written by a non-native American and so there’s a strong comparative element.

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt: they are comparativists who study democratic consolidation and deconsolidation. They give a comparative overview of illiberal democratic leaders and trace Trump’s similarities. Their BIG lesson is that democratic norms are key: 1) recognize legitimacy of opposition, 2) let them take a turn at governing when they win, and 3) don’t use all the tools at your disposal to handicap them/be willing to exercise restraint.

The Despot’s Accomplice by Brian Klaas: despite lofty American rhetoric, we’ve often enabled and supported authoritarian regimes around the world. We often do it for strategic interests (oil, stability, etc.). At the same time, the U.S. and the west have been a force for good and freedom and democracy. So here’s what works, what doesn’t, how to promote democracy effectively, and why it’s important. (Fairly harsh on both Democratic and Republican presidents)

The Despot’s Apprentice by Brian Klaas: Trump isn’t a despot, but he wants to be; the book details the various ways that Trump meets the authoritarian playbook. Focuses on democratic rules and structures, standard policies like taxes, etc. Conclusion: democracy is worth the fight. Let’s do it!

The Great Revolt by Salena Zito and Brad Todd: this is a series of qualitative interviews with Trump voters. It’s more journalistic than scholarly but helpful to learn trends. They say that the Trump coalition is basically those who feel that the coastal liberal educated elite disrespects them, thinks they’re stupid, and thinks they’re barbarian racists. This even former Democrats who felt like national Democrats were mocking people like them. They distrust institutions, including global institutions, and so want to keep things decided as local as possible.

The Left Behind by Robert Wuthnow: ethnographic qualitative overview of the values, priorities, and worldviews of people in small rural towns. More sober than the Zito and Todd book, but also less politically relevant and less detailed.

The New Minority by Justin Gest: an academic empirical book that combines qualitative and quantitative research, half looking at Britons and half at the U.S. Focused on east London and Youngstown, OH. Same basic findings: white working class see themselves as in a bad spot economically with the decline of factory and other work. They think the government did it to them and hasn’t looked out for them since. And they resent when they see poor people on government assistance or minorities get what they interpret to be an unearned advantage over them despite not working hard enough.

 

If I were to pick one book to recommend to friends to explain contemporary American politics that was as comprehensive and sophisticated as possible, I would recommend Democracy for Realists by Achen and Bartels.

For introductory-level political science courses on the topic of contemporary American polarization and political behavior, I would recommend Uncivil Agreement by Mason.

For the best overview of the current populist moment around the globe and its threat to liberal democracy both at home and abroad, I can easily recommend The People vs. Democracy by Mounk.

For the best discussion of economic inequality and its effect on democracy, I would recommend Unequal and Unrepresented by Schlozman, Brady, and Verba.

For the best book to understand the Trump phenomenon in the last five years in the U.S., I actually would recommend The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker by Katherine Cramer as I think it does a better job of any of those I read this fall listed above.

For anyone interested in state/local politics, I can easily recommend The Increasingly United States by Hopkins.

 

 

Thoughts on the January 2019 Border Wall Shutdown

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There are no shortage of opinions on this issue. Here are mine:

  1. In a democratic political system, elected officials ought to try to accomplish the things that they campaigned on. This is an important part of democratic responsiveness and accountability: candidates have platforms and when elected, they should try to enact their platform as best they can so as to be responsive to the voters who elected them which (most of the time) are a majority of the electorate. Thus, from a democratic theory perspective, it is not completely unreasonable for President Trump to try to get his Border Wall using the mechanisms that he has available to him, as it was a central part of his campaign.
  2. Important caveats include: 1) President Trump was not elected by a majority (or even a plurality) of voters, and thus from a democratic theory perspective, to enact his platform would be to some degree unresponsive to the electorate. That is not the president’s fault, though, but a feature of the Electoral College system that distorts the link between public preferences and government policy/representation, and 2) An important part of President Trump’s presidential campaign was promising that Mexico would pay for the Border Wall, not the U.S. taxpayer. Despite his dubious assertions about the NAFTA renegotiation effectively paying for the Wall, to turn around and require that American taxpayers pay for the Border Wall would also not be in harmony with democratic responsiveness.
  3. Back to Point 1, the Democratic House majority was also arguably elected in part as a negative referendum on President Trump’s administration and policies. Thus, it is also not unreasonable for the Democratic House to try to oppose the president’s Border Wall through the mechanisms that they have available to them, especially given that the president explicitly promised multiple times during the campaign that funding the Wall would not be the responsibility of American taxpayers. In essence, House Democrats are helping keep the president accountable to the specifics of his campaign promises when it comes to Border Wall funding.
  4. Generally speaking, governing by shutdown is not a healthy way for democracies to go about their business. In my view, funding basic government services should take place separately from other issues such as this. If President Trump wants the U.S. taxpayers to pay for the Border Wall, he should ask Congress to introduce and pass a bill separate from bills required to fund basic government services. During the first two years of the Trump administration, the GOP Congress regularly declined to pass a bill to fund the president’s Border Wall. Very few of them, including Congressional Republicans, wanted to move on it. Of course, it is common for presidents to look for creative ways to circumvent the legislative process when they are not able to accomplish their goals (Obama did this on immigration, Bush did it with a variety of executive orders and signing statements, etc.). President Trump is currently choosing a route that ties the fate of his Border Wall to the livelihoods of nearly a million federal workers. I simply disagree that the federal workforce should be the victim of the president’s efforts to achieve his Border Wall proposal.
  5. President Trump recently offered a compromise of Border Wall funding paired with a DACA extension. I agree with those who say that this is a pittance compromise gesture instead of a sincere compromise attempt. Nonetheless, I’d recommend to House Democrats that instead of ignoring it, they respond with a counter-offer, perhaps agreeing to the DACA question and saying “we’ll give you 5% of what you’re asking for the Border Wall,” and then continuing to negotiate from there. How much would Trump be willing to give up for even a portion of funding his Border Wall goal?
  6. There is a massive amount of evidence that most undocumented immigration to the United States currently comes from visa overstays from people coming from Asia by plane, not border crossings by people coming from Latin America. From a purely pragmatic perspective, the Border Wall is a solution in search of a “problem” that is arguably a very small piece of the national security picture.
  7. Reasonable people can disagree over the motives of those who support Trump’s Border Wall. I do not believe the evidence persuasive that support for the Wall is exclusively the result of racial/ethnic animus toward our neighbors to the south. That said, I think it also disingenuous to argue that support for the Wall is not motivated by racial prejudice and cultural anxieties for many, if not most, Wall supporters. That has to be factored in to the picture.
  8. Symbols and optics aren’t everything, of course, but they matter and are important. What does the Wall symbolize? Nothing that I believe to be in harmony with American values and ideals (as imperfect as America is at embodying its own ideals throughout its history).
  9. From a personal perspective, I have spent a good portion of my life working and associating with Spanish-speaking immigrants. I did mission work with Latino immigrants in the U.S. during college. My family and I lived in Mexico for a year and have many good friends there whom we love dearly. Much of my professional research has focused on the contours of immigration policy attitudes in the United States. Policy and politics aside, my heart aches that one of the top priorities of the chief representative of my country’s values is to pursue a political symbol of antipathy and hostility toward my dear friends.

In sum, while I strongly disagree with the Border Wall from both a policy and moral perspective, the president’s persistent attempt to enact one of his central campaign platforms is not entirely illegitimate from a democratic theory perspective, but neither are the efforts of House Democrats to oppose it. Regardless of the legitimacy of the attempt, I disagree with the president’s chosen method to pursue his campaign platform as governance by shutdown (especially when federal workers are bearing the brunt of the cost) is not a healthy way to pursue public policy goals in a democratic political system.

 

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The Weekly Standard is closing: that’s a shame

The Weekly Standard is closing.

I have often pointed my students to the Weekly Standard as an example of robust conservative political thinking that resisted the slide toward illiberal populist Trumpism. The writers and thinkers of the Weekly Standard were good models to these students on how they can best promote the conservative ideals they believe in and how they might help influence their party away from its current endorsement of Trump and Trumpism.

I have also included the Weekly Standard in my own social media feeds the last several years to help me get exposed to a diversity of perspectives as well as a way to help me check my own biases.

As someone who thinks that a strong two-party system, with each party committed to the ideals of liberal democracy while disagreeing over how to best realize those ideals, is a *good* and healthy thing for our political system, I am sad to see this happen.