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.

My thoughts on the 2018 congressional election results

UPDATE 11/19/2018:

Today’s projection from FiveThirtyEight is that Republicans will pick up 2 Senate seats and Democrats will pick up 39 House seats. Democrats are also still projected to win the House popular vote by about 7%. This means that the political science forecasting models (which, when averaged, predicted a 2 seat Senate pickup for the GOP and a 36 seat pickup for Democrats in the House) were almost exactly spot on. In terms of interpretation, Democrats will likely exceed historical out-party midterm gains by 15 seats (higher than it was looking on election night). The historical average is about a 24 seat loss for the president’s party in midterm elections, and even less so when the economy is relatively strong as it currently is. Thus, Democrats won somewhere between 20-25 more seats than they usually do when the economy is strong. I thus revise my earlier interpretation of the election results of a “slight-to-moderate” negative referendum on President Trump to a “moderate-to-strong” negative referendum on his performance, especially combined with the much higher than normal turnout for a midterm election. If President Trump had a higher approval rating (or if the GOP had nominated someone like Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush in 2016), it’s entirely likely that the GOP would have minimized their losses and kept control of the House, thereby enabling them to continue pushing their legislative agenda and perhaps minimizing whatever Congressional oversight may eventually occur as a result of the eventual final report of the Mueller investigation.

ORIGINAL POST, ELECTION NIGHT:

How did the polls do?

House Democrats were predicted to win the popular vote by about 9% nationwide. As of about 1 AM  EST, Democrats are projected to win the popular vote by about 7%. Based on these polls, Democrats were predicted to pick up about 39 House seats, not far off from the 30-35 final projected pickups, as of the time of writing). The polls predicted that Senate Republicans would pick up about 1 seat, pretty close to the final projected result of about 2-3 seats (as of the time of this writing). Not a terrible showing when taking a broad view.

How did the political science forecasts do?

An average of political science forecast models of the election results predicted that Democrats would pick up about 36 seats in the House and thus also the majority. As of about 1 AM EST, Democrats were projected to pick up about 30-35 seats or so. These same models also predicted that Republicans would pick up 2 seats in the Senate which seems to be right in line with the likely outcome as of the time of this writing, give or take 1 seat.

These models are based on a few key variables: whether it’s a midterm election, presidential approval/disapproval, and prevailing economic conditions. Right now the economy is generally in pretty good shape and, all other things being equal, the president’s party tends to lose about 25 seats. The 30-35 seat loss for the president’s party is consistent with an unpopular president with a reasonably strong economy.

What do these results mean?

A key question for me is what the results imply about how “normalized” President Trump and his brand of illiberal populism has become in the American electorate. Roughly two-thirds of voters said that their vote was to either express approval or disapproval for President Trump. If the House vote was more or less in line with historical averages (about a 25 seat loss), I’d interpret that as a net neutral outcome as far as a presidential referendum goes and a normalization of Trumpism for voters.

A 30-35 Republican seat loss is somewhat higher than what we would expect given other key variables that tend to correlate highly with midterm election outcomes. In other words, if Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio had won the Republican nomination and maintained a 47-48%-ish approval rating with the same economy, we’d likely see more like a 25 Republican seat loss.

Thus, I interpret the additional 5-10 GOP seat loss as a slight-to-moderate “Trump penalty,” or negative referendum on Trump and Trumpism. The slight GOP gain in the Senate moderates that slightly. Also, Trump has a historically low approval rating considering the state of the economy and Democrats just won the national Congressional popular vote by about 7%.

To me, this suggests that Trump and Trumpism has become somewhat, but not entirely normalized among American voters. At the same time, it has not entirely shifted the boundaries of what is considered normal and legitimate in our political system.

What does this mean going forward?

Given that the House will be controlled by the Democrats and Senate by the Republicans, it is unlikely that much substantive legislation will be passed during the next two years.

On the Senate side, the most important implication of continued GOP control is that President Trump will continue to be able to successfully appoint conservative justices to the bench.

On the House side, the most important implication of Democratic control is the beginning of aggressive oversight of the Trump administration: investigations, hearings, etc. For the past two years the Republican House has largely declined to exercise any meaningful oversight over one of the most controversial presidents in modern history. The Democrats are ready to hit the ground running.

What are the normative implications of the results?

I tend to distinguish political actions, policies, and priorities between those that are normal in a liberal democratic political system (e.g. disagreement over taxes, budgets, abortion access, etc.) and those that are abnormal and harmful to a strong democratic system (e.g. using totalitarian rhetoric like “enemy of the people” to refer to free media institutions, referring to Nazis as “very fine people,” alienating democratic alliances in Europe while praising authoritarian dictators around the world, etc.).

President Trump is the legitimately and duly elected president based on our Constitutional Electoral College system. While his judicial appointments are certainly strong conservatives and strict constructionists, these are not outside the boundaries of traditional presidential judicial appointments. For the GOP to maintain control of the Senate means that the president’s judicial appointments will continue to be regularly confirmed. This is, in my view, entirely consistent with proper and legitimate liberal democratic outcomes.

On the other hand, President Trump has also engaged in numerous actions which by any standard are characteristic of illiberal democracies and authoritarian political systems (see here, here, and here, e.g.). That the American electorate produced only a moderate negative referendum on Trump and Trumpism is, in my view, disappointing. It suggests that Trumpism has become somewhat normalized in the public mind. Today’s election results showed that many segments of the American public are willing to tolerate a good deal of illiberal populist Trumpism and, for the most part, do not view the erosion of our democratic institutions and norms as a pressing concern.

In my perspective, the most important national priority right now is to counter illiberal populist Trumpism as strongly as possible, helping steer American conservatism back to its honorable history of support for small government and traditional values while adhering to liberal democratic principles.

At the Congressional level, though, I am more optimistic. Over the last two years the House of Representatives has largely declined to provide any meaningful “check and balance” against any of the illiberal excesses on the part of President Trump. As I have written, I believe that actions that weaken our democratic norms and institutions are a great deal more important than the regular disagreements over policy that are part of a normal and healthy democracy.

Thus, regardless of policy differences between Democrats and Republicans, I view it as a very, very, very good thing that a Democratic majority in the House will begin to exercise meaningful oversight over President Trump for the first time in his presidency. This is perhaps the most important long-term implication of Tuesday’s election results.

My recommendations for the 2018 congressional midterm elections

TL;DR: except for the extraordinary circumstance where a Republican congressional candidate has explicitly taken a stance against President Trump’s actions and rhetoric that weaken our democratic institutions, values, alliances, and norms, I strongly recommend that all U.S. citizens vote and vote for Democratic candidates this election cycle.

Under normal circumstances, I encourage my fellow citizens to regularly vote in elections and choose the option that best matches their policy views. In recent years we have had many honorable candidates from various political parties who present differing choices on political issues while generally agreeing on the broad contours of democratic principles.

Under current circumstances, however, we have elected a president who, while espousing many normal policy positions, has also expressed skepticism and scorn for fundamental democratic values like: 1) accepting the legitimacy of election outcomes, 2) promoting the legitimacy of a free press, 3) promoting friendships and alliances with other democratic nations while not endorsing, legitimizing, or promoting authoritarian leaders of non-democratic countries, etc. etc. (More evidence and examples are available here).

Our political system anticipated that presidents like this would come along from time to time. They designed the Congressional branch to serve as a check on presidents who do not safeguard and protect basic democratic institutions and norms. The majority party of Congress, however, has declined to do so because: 1) they have decided that pursuing policy outcomes and judicial appointments a higher priority than defending basic democratic principles and institutions, and 2) they believe that’s what their constituents want them to do.

Recognizing the legitimate merits of the majority party’s policies and judicial nominations, I respectfully submit that these are less important priorities than safeguarding the basic democratic “rules of the road” which ensure a free democratic system in the United States. Our top priority should be protecting and defending our basic institutions and norms of a free democracy.

Therefore, under current circumstances I *strongly* recommend that my friends show up to vote on Election Day (if they haven’t already) and vote for candidates (especially for Congress) that will not continue to look the other way while the president continues to weaken our global reputation as promoters of free democracy and continues to weaken the institutions and norms of our free democracy at an alarming rate.

Although there are a handful of Republican candidates who have honorably taken stances against the president to promote free democratic values, most of the time this will mean voting for Democratic candidates.

My recommendation is not simply because I sympathize when Democratic party political priorities. Indeed, I have voted for Republicans and Independents as well as Democrats in my voting history. Had President Trump run as a Democrat and won both the primary and general election, however, and proceeded to label our free press “the enemy of the people,” a free democratic Europe as a “foe” and an autocratic Russian president a “strong leader,” and based his platform and megaphone on stoking prejudice against religious and racial minorities while a Democratic Congress looked the other way in pursuit of Supreme Court picks and passing Medicare-for-all, I would today be strongly recommending that my friends vote for Republicans to serve as a check on the president’s actions. This, however, did not happen, and for that reason I am today recommending voting for Democratic candidates in all but a few circumstances.

After all, we cannot continue to have our important and spirited democratic debates over taxes, education, jobs, judges, etc. if the framework and rules for conducing those debates in a fair democratic manner weakens.

As the Washington Post editorial board recently argued:

We believe voters should back any candidate who will stand up to Mr. Trump’s brand of reactionary populism. After Nov. 6, we will have a better idea whether 2016 was the beginning of an extended dark period in U.S. politics or an aberration that shocked the nation’s democrats, of whatever party affiliation, into effective action. Think about that, and vote accordingly.
As moderate conservative columnists have argued:

The rule of law is a threshold value in American politics, and a party that endangers this value disqualifies itself, period. In other words, under certain peculiar and deeply regrettable circumstances, sophisticated, independent-minded voters need to act as if they were dumb-ass partisans. …

the most-important tasks in U.S. politics right now are to change the Republicans’ trajectory and to deprive them of power in the meantime. In our two-party system, the surest way to accomplish these things is to support the other party, in every race from president to dogcatcher. The goal is to make the Republican Party answerable at every level, exacting a political price so stinging as to force the party back into the democratic fold. …

We understand, too, the many imperfections of the Democratic Party. Its left is extreme, its center is confused, and it has its share of bad apples. But the Democratic Party is not a threat to our democratic order. That is why we are rising above our independent predilections and behaving like dumb-ass partisans. It’s why we hope many smart people will do the same.

Central Kentucky has a lot of geographically close-knit social media networks

A recent analysis by the New York Times Upshot blog examines the geographical dispersion of social media networks for people in each part of the country:

socialmediadispersion

Darker blue means that, on average, those who live there have fewer social media contacts who live within 50 miles of them while whiter colors mean that, on average, those who live there have more social media contacts who live within 50 miles of the them.

To some extent, one can explain the east vs. west difference by simple population density. Growing up out west, I can attest to the fact that you have to drive eight hours in any direction to get anywhere.

At the same time, I would estimate that even controlling for population density, those in the east central region are more likely to have contacts that live close by. Indeed, central Kentucky is one of the most concentrated places in the country for those whose social media contacts live nearby.

As the authors explain:

Close-knit communities can have their own benefits, like enabling neighbors to rely on one another for economic and social support. But previous research suggests that “weak ties” to people we know less well can be particularly valuable for bringing us information we don’t already have. So people in communities that are more broadly connected may be more likely to hear about a wider range of business or educational opportunities.

 

NYT’s Upshot 2016 new election map is epic

The New York Times’ Upshot blog recently released a fantastically detailed interactive map of the 2016 election and it is epic. It shows every neighborhood-level voting precinct in America with a breakdown of the 2016 presidential election results:

https://www.nytimes.com/video/players/offsite/index.html?videoId=desktop-with-labels-90sec-640w 

A few things I found interesting:

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My town (Danville, Kentucky) looks like this. To me, this map is showing that Danville is a politically moderate city in terms of voting behavior, but that it has a slight Republican edge when it comes to presidential voting. Most precincts voted for Trump somewhere between 50%-60% and Clinton between 35%-45%. Not surprisingly, the strong Clinton precinct is where Centre College is located. The mix of different shades of blue and red tell me that there’s a good deal of political diversity in Danville. One of the objectives of the interactive map is to show you whether you live in a “political bubble” or not. Danville residents, for the most part, do not. (The rural precincts of Boyle County, however, went much stronger for Trump.)

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I grew up in Cache Valley, Utah. It is interesting to see that Evan McMullin won a majority in several precincts, and enough to dilute the Republican vote to where Trump won a slim majority in most of the others. It also enabled Clinton to win a plurality in many precincts with only around 40% of the vote.

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Likewise, Provo is one of the most conservative communities in the country, and McMullin won a majority in several precincts and a strong plurality in several others.

There is much more to be explored: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/upshot/election-2016-voting-precinct-maps.html

My thoughts on the Trump-Putin Helsinki summit

I’m grateful for the freedom to criticize my president’s words in praise of Vladimir Putin at the Helsinki Summit. It’s a freedom that Russia’s citizens do not equally enjoy.

I don’t fault a US president for meeting with authoritarian leaders. But I do fault them when they do so to praise them and imply that they’re envious of their unchecked power.

Call me old fashioned, but I think that liberal democracy is a better form of government than authoritarianism and worth defending and fighting for, both at home and abroad.

I used to think that despite our partisan differences, we all agreed on basic fundamentals like democracy > authoritarianism. I don’t think a candid read of the evidence can support that view any longer.

Our president clearly and openly minimizes the importance of democratic institutions and norms while praising strongman dictators. One party mostly gives him a pass, and the other says we need to focus on economic issues over presidential scandals/drama.

As a Millennial, I didn’t grow up with the cultural memory of WW2, the Cold War, or the Berlin Wall. I took liberal democracy as a given and for granted in my country. I suppose every generation has to learn anew why democracy, despite its flaws, is worth defending.