ABOUT INFORMATIONKNOLLCommentary and analysis from a political science professor at a liberal arts college in Danville, Kentucky. Twitter: @benjaminknoll28
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Category Archives: U.S. politics
In the interest of engaging in democratic deliberation with my fellow American citizens, here are my thoughts on yesterday’s special counsel indictments of Paul Manafort, et al.:
1. The presumption of “innocent until proven guilty” is an important component of liberal democracy. The evidence presented yesterday certainly is damning for those specifically indicated. To my knowledge, though, there is still no clear evidence that Donald Trump was directly involved in the events described in the indictments. There is, however, more than sufficient evidence (in my view) to warrant Mueller continuing to aggressively pursue his investigation, including the possibility of knowledge on the part of President Trump during the campaign regarding the actions of his campaign manager and other advisers.
2. While the indictments yesterday are important, I am watching much more closely President Trump’s reaction in coming days and weeks to Mueller’s investigation. Any objective assessment of the evidence strongly indicates that Trump has shown a willingness to ignore, weaken, and constrict democratic norms and institutions for his own advantage. He’s already fired James Comey for (in his own words) investigating the Russia issue. Will he do the same with the Mueller investigation? Will he blanket pardon anyone indicted in the investigation? If so, this would be a key test of the strength of our democratic institutions in the United States which operate, for the most part, on the “honor system.”
3. A key question is also how Congress is reacting to these events. If President Trump were to use his power to issue these blanket pardons and/or eliminate the Mueller investigation, what would be the response of Congress? Would they act as a “check and balance” to preserve our liberal democratic norms and institutions, or would they turn a blind eye in an attempt to secure legislative goals of tax cuts and health care reform? I always thought that they would do the former, but they’ve shown a terrifying willingness to do the latter.
4. On that same note, I continue to be strongly disappointed with the gap between rhetoric and actions on the part of Congressional Republicans in terms of their commitment to liberal democratic principles. The GOP has traditionally been a proud defender (however imperfectly) of liberal democracy both at home and abroad. When push comes to shove, though, they’ve (so far) sadly chosen legislative priorities over defending our system of government. (Notable and honorable exceptions include Senators John McCain, Ben Sasse, Jeff Flake, and a few others.)
5. Continuing on this theme, imagine a hypothetical where Hillary Clinton had won the election and a special counsel investigation had indicted her former campaign manager for money laundering, tax evasion, etc. and a campaign foreign policy adviser for meeting with a Russian professor to get damaging information about the Trump campaign. How would Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and Fox News have responded? How closely does that match how they *did* respond yesterday? Hypocrisy is always to be found in electoral politics, from Democrats and Republicans alike, but this is a whole new level of willful inaction.
6. In my view, Congressional Republicans are declining to aggressively “check and balance” the president to defend democratic norms and institutions in our country because they’re betting that a critical mass of their voting bases in their states and districts agree with President Trump’s actions and priorities. Public opinion polling tends to support that conclusion. I encourage my Republican friends to contact your congressional representatives and let them know that while you agree with them and support their fight for tax reform, abortion restrictions, health care reform, etc., you are NOT supportive of the President’s continual attacks on our democratic systems (free press, free speech, rule of law, etc.) and that you will NOT vote for them for reelection if they do not more aggressively “check and balance” the president. This might jeopardize their ability to get tax reform or other legislative priorities. I encourage you, though, to consider that defending our system of government is a higher priority. Without a strong liberal democratic government, it will not in the long run be possible to have the freedom to debate about tax reform, health care reform, etc. Our government is worth fighting for.
- Contrary to many of President Trump’s other appointments, Neil Gorsuch appears by all accounts to be an extremely well-qualified, thoughtful, and experienced jurist with stellar credentials. Judging purely on the merits, I have seen no evidence to suggest that Gorsuch is anything other than entirely within the mainstream of conservative jurists that Republican presidents typically appoint to the Supreme Court.
- I will admit I was expecting a more “Trumpy” Supreme Court pick. On just about every opportunity Pres. Trump has declined to follow democratic norms and actively tried to delegitimize our political institutions. On this score, however, he made a choice that is entirely consistent with Supreme Court nominee norms and I have not seen any evidence that Gorsuch will do anything other than try faithfully to strengthen the legitimacy of the judicial branch of government. Thus, I commend Pres. Trump for respecting democratic norms on this particular choice and hope that he will continue to do so in his future decision-making.
- In my opinion, Democrats should not automatically filibuster the Gorsuch appointment for purely political reasons. Senator McConnell and Senate Republicans did a great disservice to our nation and our political institutions by uniformly opposing Pres. Obama’s Merrick Garland’s for purely political reasons (their inconsistent and self-serving justifications notwithstanding). This jeopardized an important democratic norm and further politicized the judicial nomination process. If Democrats were to return in kind, they become complicit in the further weakening of our democratic norms and institutions.
- That being said, if the Senate Democrats choose to filibuster Gorsuch for purely political reasons, any Senate Republican who criticizes them for their obstruction is 100% hypocritical and disingenuous. They insult the American public to pretend that they took the high road on the Merrick Garland nomination.
- If the Senate Democrats choose to filibuster Gorsuch, one silver lining might be that it will force Sen. McConnell’s hand to eliminate the filibuster once and for all. Under normal circumstances, I support the Senate filibuster as an important check on the rights of the minority. Over the last two decades, though, it has become standard operating procedure for the minority party to automatically filibuster just about everything, making an undemocratic super-majority necessary to do anything in our political system. This prevents democratic majorities from being able to govern and weakens democratic accountability by allowing the majority to blame the minority if they fail to deliver results. Given these realities, I think the it’s time for the filibuster to go, and a Senate filibuster of a qualified Supreme Court appointment might be a good occasion to make it happen.
- It would be a nice gesture if Neil Gorsuch were to publicly say some kind words about Merrick Garland. On the merits, it should be Garland’s seat if Senate Republicans had chosen to put democratic norms and institutions over blatant partisanship.
Political scientist Seth Masket wrote the following this week:
“Norms are what really keep a democratic system running. Good constitutional design is obviously important, but it doesn’t ensure a thriving or stable liberal democracy. The American presidential system has been replicated in many other nations, particularly in Latin America, with far less successful results, in large part due to different norms about what is and isn’t acceptable.”
This is different than supporting or opposing Obamacare or having different opinions about ideal levels of taxation. It’s about supporting and defending the political framework that enables those discussions to take place while avoiding civil conflict and political instability.
Traditionally, both Democrats and Republicans have agreed (despite their other differences) that this framework is good and worth defending, but this bipartisan agreement is starting to disappear.
As citizens of a democratic political system (regardless of whether you’re a liberal or conservative or anything else) it’s up to us to fix it. If we’re not up to the task, then we will get the government that we deserve.
I recommend reading his blog post in its entirety here.
I take very seriously my professional obligation to not publicly engage in partisan debates just for the sake of partisanship. I also take seriously the importance of not being an alarmist.
But I also take seriously my responsibilities as a citizen of a liberal democratic society, which places upon me an obligation of speaking out when that system of government is under active threat. Now is one of those times.
Please read my recent Huffington Post piece entitled “Not kidding around: Donald Trump is actively threatening American democracy.”
Then take action!
The 2016 Colonel’s Canvass Poll, conducted October 18-23, showed Hillary Clinton with the support of 44.9% of likely voters and Donald Trump with 40% of likely voters, with a 4.1% margin of error.
That means that there was a 95% chance that Hillary Clinton’s level of support was anywhere from 40.8% and 49% and Donald Trump’s level of support was anywhere from 35.9% to 44.1%.
As of 12/9/2016, Hillary Clinton had won the popular vote with 48.04% compared to Donald Trump’s 46.08%. Our polling estimate for Clinton support was therefore off by 3.14% and our estimate for Trump was off by 6.08%.
It is important to note, though, that our poll was conducted three weeks before the election. It also showed Johnson with 6% support, “someone else” with 2.7%, and “don’t know” with 5.4%. As usually happens before elections, support for the third-party options decreased and support for the two-party candidates increased.
In sum, there is little evidence that our poll was “way off” or incorrect. Our poll correctly predicted Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote. Like most other national polls, we slightly over-estimated Clinton’s level of support and moderately under-estimated Trump’s level of support. In the end, however, our poll showed Clinton winning by 5% whereas she is currently winning the popular vote by about 2% in the final tabulation. A 3% difference is within the traditionally-accepted margins of standard polling error.
Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 29, 2016
Is this purely bluster? Perhaps.
But so far he’s tried to do the things he promised to do during the campaign, even the bluster. For example, he followed through on the racism bluster by nominating a white nationalist (Steve Bannon) as Chief Strategist. He has followed through on the Islamophobia bluster by nominating someone who believes Islam to be a “cancer” (Michael Flynn) as National Security Adviser.
Therefore, it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility that he will try to take steps to weaken other First Amendment freedoms once in office. These might possibly eventually include freedom of assembly and freedom of religion.
It is not a partisan opinion to state that threatening jail time or the revocation of citizenship for those who exercise their First Amendment civil liberties is clearly outside the traditional norms and boundaries of liberal democracy (as offensive as flag burning or other forms of expression might be to us).
As someone who believes that liberal democracy is a preferably form of government to autocracy or authoritarianism, I see rhetoric like this to be potentially harmful to liberal democracy whether it comes from Republicans or Democrats or anyone else. Even though it may just be bluster, the evidence so far is that our President-Elect believes the things he blusters about and will try to implement them.
Therefore, it is worth taking the President-Elect at his word and worrying when he threatens to weaken or undermine the core tenets of liberal democracy, including First Amendment freedoms.
Answers to commonly-asked questions about the May 17 Kentucky Democratic presidential primary:
Q. What was voter turnout?
A. Official election returns are currently showing a turnout of 20.65% of registered voters (which is different than eligible voters, mind you). This is about the same rate of turnout in previous Kentucky primaries over the last several years and just about what the Secretary of State’s office was predicting in the days leading up to the primary.
Q. Was voter turnout different between Republicans and Democrats?
A. Yes. Republicans had a non-competitive Senate primary (Rand Paul and two challengers) while Democrats had the presidential primary and also a Senate primary (in addition to various local and state-level primaries).
The election returns indicate that 199,519 registered Republicans voted in the Senate primary, which is 9.2% of the 1,295,392 registered Republicans in Kentucky, as per the Sec. of State’s website. On the Democratic side, 454,573 registered Democrats voted in the presidential primary which is 26.9% of the state’s 1,688,472 registered Democrats. This is a little better than the 18% or so of Republicans who turned out in the Kentucky GOP caucus back in March.
This is not terribly surprising given that Republican primary was non-competitive and the Democratic presidential primary had received a great deal of attention in the last few weeks, including multiple visits by both Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders.
Q. Who won the Democratic presidential primary?
A. Secretary Clinton, by a margin of less than 1%: 46.76% for Clinton vs. 46.33% for Sanders.
Q. How did the race go in Boyle County?
A. Hillary Clinton won 50% to Bernie Sanders 44%.
Q. How does this translate into delegates?
A. More or less a straight tie: most media outlets are estimating that both candidates will receive 27 pledged delegates to the DNC convention. Kentucky Democrats also have 5 super-delegates, at least 2 of which have already announced support for Secretary Clinton.
Q. How does Kentucky’s primary affect the Democratic presidential race?
A. Mathematically speaking, it is nearly impossible for Bernie Sanders to win enough pledged delegates (not counting super-delegates) to win the Democratic nomination at this point. To make any dent in Hillary Clinton’s lead would have required a massive landslide win in Kentucky which did not happen. That being said, by continuing to keep the delegate count close, the Sanders campaign is motivating the Clinton campaign to continue to be responsive to Sanders voters and their interests and ensures that the Sanders coalition will have an important influence on the Democratic platform going forward and possibly even an influence on who Hillary Clinton chooses as a vice presidential candidate.
Q. What explains the election results?
A. Hillary Clinton won by racking up large margins in Louisville and Lexington. Bernie Sanders kept it close by dominating in coal country in eastern Kentucky and also in far western Kentucky. It was pretty evenly split throughout the rest of the state.
Academics and data journalists have identified a few basic factors that have done a pretty good job explaining the Democratic primary election results so far:
- Closed vs. open primaries: Clinton does better in closed primaries and Sanders does better in open primaries.
- Primaries vs. caucuses: Clinton does better in primaries and Sanders does better in caucuses.
- Demographics: Clinton does better with minorities while Sanders does better with whites.
- Geography: Clinton does better in the south while Sanders does better in the north.
Based on those factors, statistician Nate Silver predicted Hillary Clinton winning by 2%. Given that this estimate was off by only about 1.5% it suggests that she won because: 1) Kentucky has a closed primary (not an open primary or a caucus), 2) she racked up bigger margins in urban areas (Louisville, Lexington) with larger minority populations, and 3) Kentucky is south-ish where Clinton has done better.
One interesting pattern is that Bernie Sanders did very well in eastern Kentucky which is dominated by the coal economy and Appalachian culture. Democrats in this part of the state are very likely not “social democrats” as Bernie Sanders identifies as. Thus, it is likely that they were not voting for Bernie Sanders out of an affinity for his policy views. Rather, they likely voted for Bernie Sanders as an anti-Clinton “protest vote” as they perceive Hillary Clinton very unfriendly to coal interests and disapprove of the direction that the Democratic establishment has gone in recent years, similar to what happened in West Virginia.
Q. Where can I find nifty election statistics and maps?
A. Here are a few: