Saturday, December 14, 2019

The UK Election ... Tells Us Nothing About Ours

One of the hot takes coming out of the UK election was this one: Labor’s catastrophic defeat means a liberal Dem can’t win in the US. It is a bizarre position.
The contexts of the two countries and their candidates bear not even a passing resemblance to each other. No matter how this election went, it would offer no insight into US elections happening a year from now. (If Elizabeth Warren loses to Trump, the reasons won’t resemble the reasons for Johnson’s win even passingly.) Because:

  • The election was fundamentally about Brexit. There is no analogue to this in the US. It’s significant because Brexit, unlike any issue in US politics, cuts across party lines. The Labor leader, Jeremy Corbin, like many traditional Labor voters, was predisposed the Brexit. He took no position on it. That’s really bad for a party entering a campaign in which it’s seen as the “Remain” ticket!
  • Brexit itself illustrates a dynamic absent in the US—the politics of the EU. We have nothing like that issue, nor the real-world issues attendant to it (immigration, travel, trade).
  • Corbyn is unlike most Dems in that he has a factional appeal in Labor. He is, within his own party, a divisive figure. People compare him to Sanders, but this isn’t quite right, either. Sanders’ supporters are like Corbyn’s—and some will wander to Trump if he’s not the candidate (polls suggest ~3-4%). But Sanders is himself not divisive. He’ll enjoy broad and unified support if he’s the nominee. As will any Dem.
  • Corbyn is wildly unpopular. His approval is at a staggering 16%, while disapproval is 76%. Boris Johnson isn’t loved, but he had the whip hand in terms of support vs Corbyn. Dems are broadly popular and their net approval is higher than Trump’s.
  • There were many scandals or dust-ups that dispirited Labor, chief among them a badly-handled anti-Semitism scandal that beset the party. Dems are very spirited! And they’ll vote for a ham sandwich if it gets Trump out of office.
  • Just structurally, the multi-party system creates very different dynamics. This is especially true because of the UK demographics—and here the results were anything but encouraging for conservatives. The social-democratic Scottish National Party won 48 of 59 seats in Scotland, and party leader Nicola Sturgeon immediately announced a desire to leave Britain. Brexit again. And you don’t see the people making the U.K./US parallel mention this outcome, which illustrates how different the two countries are.
  • In Northern Ireland, both liberal and conservative parties lost votes (though only the conservative DUP lost seats). The moderate Alliance Party, which doesn’t fix its identity on the leave/remain axis, was the gainer. 
 Human brains are hard-wired to draw associations. We see faces in clouds. And, when foreign elections happen, we see our own politics in them. But despite the many ways in which the U.K. is similar to the US, this election was decidedly not a good example. The moderates who forward the idea that it means anything about American politics are seeing faces in the clouds of U.K. politics and engaging in wishful thinking.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Failing the Trump Stress Test

America is about to fail a democratic stress test that is arguably the worst in our history. This morning the House Dems pushed forward with incredibly lean articles of impeachment that will certainly convince no Republicans in the Senate to convict the President.

So much could be said about the ruptured norms and outright criminality by the Trump administration and the Republican Party’s willingness to go along with the White House’s authoritarian instincts. But leave those aside. Leave even the personalities and parties aside. Look only at the events.

The administration has argued Trump cannot be charged with any crime—that he is above the law. The AG is actively acting as a wing of defense for the president. Meanwhile, the administration has argued it doesn’t have to comply with any efforts by the legislature to oversee or investigate it. By rejecting the contempt of Congress article of impeachment, the Senate will effectively codify these activities. Those will be the working rules for all administrations going forward.

The consequences are obvious. For the next year or five following Senate acquittal, Trump will be untethered. Every time in his life that he’s escaped accountability, he’s escalated his criminal activities. Immediately following the release of the Mueller report, another instance of failed accountability, he began to pressure Ukraine to help him in his election. He and his attorneys will correctly conclude that Congress has abdicated its right to investigate, and he will be able to conceal any of his future activities from oversight. Does anyone thing Donald J Trump will exercise control in this case?

The continued erosion of oversight over the next one of five years will set the bar for the next president. Whether it’s Mike Pence or Elizabeth Warren, there’s no chance that president will return oversight.

The fight between the parties and branches have exposed other fissures that are equally worrying. Trump’s mendacity is legendary, and the GOP has finally learned there’s no penalty for lying. To just take two cases: yesterday an independent report found that the FBI did not err when it investigated Trump. Trump and the GOP immediately lied about it, claiming victory. Separately, the GOP has signed on to the bizarre story that it was Ukraine and not Russia that interfered in the 2016 election. These aren’t cases in which parties are shading gray areas to their advantages. The GOP is happy to look at the sky and tell you it’s green.

This is Soviet-like propaganda, the effect of which is to undermine the public’s belief in *any* truth. The media has grossly failed their own test in handling this, dutifully detailing the “arguments” of both sides. It’s infected the thinking of voters (both R and D) who are now doubt the legitimacy of their leaders.

It’s possible to restore functioning democracy and root out these forms of corruption, but not when one party is fully committed to perpetuating them. The GOP seems not to see the endgame here, or care. Or perhaps they hope to continue to hang onto power through the very corruption to which they’re committed.

In any case, this soon-to-be-failed attempt to hold a lawless executive accountable (which I support) will have profound, decades-long repercussions. The way our government functions is about to change; it will become the tool of whomever has power, wielded for personal and political benefit. The everyday function of the departments and agencies will function sporadically, to the extent they have not been harnessed to those ends. Anyone who has lived in semi-democracies will recognize this kind of government. Elections will still happen, and life will go forward, but the pretty, functioning democracy we built over generations will be a scattered pile of shards no one will have the capacity to reconstruct.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Ten Comments of Varying Quality

A whole bunch of random political thoughts on a Sunday morning.

1. On impeachment. Although the Dems are constructing a great case for the Ukraine deal, I believe this is an error. If you’re going to tilt at this windmill knowing fully that Trump won’t be removed, why on earth would you constrain the scope? Mueller identified 11 (!) cases of obstruction—some clearly in the public record. Trump has been self-dealing and violating the emoluments clause, another massive area of corruption. The violations are extensive. The upshot is this: if you’re impeaching him solely to make a point, make the damn point. Create a *full* case for why he should have been removed for the historical record. Otherwise you’re in effect laundering all those crimes by accusing him of just one lesser charge. (Among his crimes, can anyone argue this is the worst?)

2. One of the first charges should be Trump’s lying. This is perhaps his most corrupt act. It undermines the very foundation of a functional government and its residue will be the most difficult thing to clean up. Why on earth would future candidates not just lie their asses off?

3. There’s quite a bit of commentary about “liberal” versus “moderate” Dems. These terms have very little meaning to most voters. Functionally, these terms are heuristics that mean two things to voters: electability and fringiness. People don’t want someone perceived as too far outside the mainstream (we’re a big tent party, after all), and they want someone who can beat Trump. There’s a self-reinforcing feedback loop that “liberal” means fringe, which means scary and unelectable. And that’s all it means.

What these terms have nothing to do with is policy. Americans have no idea what liberal means in terms of public policy and in fact are already quite liberal. Most Dems support universal healthcare of some variety. They have very firm views about protecting minority rights. Unions are again popular. They support aggressive action on climate change. And so on. The idea that most Dems want the Washington consensus regarding taxes (should be very low), spending (should be slashed, especially on “entitlements”), and immediate action on the deficit is laughable. It’s preferable to very, very few Americans, what to speak of Dems. The positions the average Dem holds is quite liberal, particularly with regard to the politics of the past 40 years, and the party is already unified on them.

4. It is therefor incredibly amusing that Mike Bloomberg, looking at the primary, thinks: what Dems are clamoring for is an autocratic billionaire who is principally concerned with making change on the margins so long as the rich are left unscathed. It’s my time! I hope he does run, because making billionaires cry isn’t fun only for Elizabeth Warren.

5. I actually like Deval Patrick, but he’s also suffering some kind of bizarre delusion that makes it impossible for him to see that candidacies like his own—Booker’s, O’Rourke’s, and Harris’s—have been roundly rejected by voters.

6. Cory Booker has run a fantastic campaign. His failure to launch is the biggest surprise to me in the primaries. *Especially* once Kamala tanked. (She’s run a uniquely terrible campaign and her crash is entirely predictable based on her performance. It’s why long primaries are actually good: you get to see how effective candidates are. Booker, by contrast, has been stellar, and I mean just in political terms, whatever else you think of his politics.)

7. Not a Mayor Pete fan. He’s exposed himself to be mansplainy, slippery, and nasty. That he’s only been an average mayor in the one relevant position he’s held, and managed to alienate a large chunk of his base at home, ain’t a great credential. Pass.

8. Biden may win this thing after all. If Buttigieg wins IA, it will seriously blunt Warren’s challenge (In a poll today, Pete was leading). If he finishes credibly in NH and wins NV and SC (he’s way ahead in the polls), Biden will be poised for a massive landslide in the heavily Black states of Super Tuesday. He could find himself the presumptive nominee by early March.

9. The Hunter Biden slanders have clearly hardened and shored up Biden's support.

10. I remain incredibly pessimistic about the future of the US, but have also started to come to some equanimity in dealing with this reality. We must find a space of mental health in all of this; constantly pouring toxicity into our minds is not a good response to the era.

Saturday, November 02, 2019

The Election Will Not Involve Public Policy

If the current President were a generic Republican like Mike Pence or Marco Rubio, the forthcoming election would be a very interesting one for Democrats. Until Obama’s election, wealth-focused centrism had been dominant in the party for well over a decade. Clinton capitulated to the idea that “big government” was bad, and he gutted welfare and shifted to a pro-business focus. Labor unions were on the decline, and money won elections, so Dems decided rather than beating the wealthy and their business interests, they’d steal them from the GOP. 

Obama pushed the party as far left as the most conservative GOP senator would allow, and created the opportunity for party activists to challenge the Clinton orthodoxy. That orthodoxy was effectively shattered with Bernie’s run in 2016. He lost the election but, after decades of fighting for progressive policies common in other countries, won the larger war. Hillary moved well to the left in 2016—and that wasn’t what did her in—and candidates in 2020 have been further to the left still. We always talk about moderates and liberals (or conservatives) as if they are fixed, unchanging properties. But the median moderate in 2020 is left of Obama in 2008. (Obama was, at least publicly, against gay marriage, and wouldn’t even discuss cannabis legalization, just to illustrate what’s changed.)

So in a normal year, we’d be having a fascinating policy debate about where the party should be headed. I personally don’t think Medicare for All is the best way to get to a public health care system. But it’s a great debate. People have interesting and nuanced arguments about which elements of the Green New Deal should be pursued. Even without Trump, the question of what liberal foreign policy should look like has been urgent since Obama’s tenure. Big, fascinating proposals like wealth taxes and universal basic income are on the table for the first time in a presidential election. There are a lot of amazing new ideas floating around.

Instead, though, every proposal is instantly filtered through one lens: is this position so extreme it will cause Dems to lose to Trump again? Among the candidates and activists these issues are getting discussed, of course. But the second they get anywhere near the mainstream media or a discussion about the general election, all consideration of policy is dropped, the position is collapsed into a single summary (extreme, outside the mainstream, unpopular) and discussed as a millstone around the candidate’s neck.

This is how politics works. Narratives form, and good politicians are adept at shaping them. But as a Dem who’s focused on policy, it’s frustrating that I’m not getting to hear substantive debates about these issues beyond, “Senator, do you think your position on _________ makes you too extreme to beat President Trump?”

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Current Reality > Imagination (With Nazis!)

I have been avidly following the Trump news as I traipse across Europe, but there hasn’t seemed like any reason to comment. Everything Trump requires holding two minds: on the one hand, his transgressions are unprecedented and unacceptable, on the other, nothing changes. These current allegations are unquestionably beyond the pale—to my reading, it plainly qualifies as treason. But whatevs. Views differ; next on the show, we go on another Cletus safari to find out whether farmers in Kansas believe Joe Biden is guilty. That’s how life has been in the age of Trump.

Today, though, I spent three or four hours reviewing detailed accounts of the Nazi invasion and occupation of Krak√≥w at the MOCAK museum. In 1939, 25% of the city was Jewish, so it suffered a particular kind of horror. The details were raw and profound to experience—the had a lot of video—but most of us understand the broad contours.

Donald Trump was born in 1946. In order to have any experience of WWII, people need to be a decade older than he is. We are quickly passing out of the living memory of that war, its antecedents, and the mechanisms of fascism. That loss has been tremendous and we see it in the way Republicans now excuse or defend Trump.

They can afford to. It is their luxury to have always had a stable government. They have never had to choose between staying in a walled ghetto—a prison—or fleeing into the countryside with no money or possessions. They’ve never seen government officials walk into the university and round up professors and ship them off to concentration camps. (German official: “You shall be taken to a POW camp where you will be properly informed of your real situation. You will be taken immediately.”)
They’ve never had to worry that a loved one late from a trip to the store has been arrested on the way home. They’ve never had to wait in lines for hours to buy a loaf of bread. And on and on and on.
I don’t mean to equate Trump with the Reich here. Rather, I fear that as we have lost the memory of the horrors of the 20th century, it gives us a sense that nothing really bad will ever happen.

One of the most poignant parts of that installation was right at the start. Contemporaneous accounts described the day before Germany invaded. People went about their regular lives. It was a warm fall night and many were out in restaurants and pubs. They thought the Americans and Brits would save them. Bombs fell at 5am the next morning. (Most of the city was spared as Poland immediately surrendered it.)

I feel like we’re at one of those moments where the dial on our imagination doesn’t go as far as reality may. There’s nothing special about America. We’re not smarter than the Poles or more virtuous or more evolved. Democracies are hard work and they’re remarkably fragile. They require that we put our faith in those with whom we have profound disagreements. They break when we stop.
The Republican Party and its voters stand at a crossroads. If they choose Trump and his corruption, lies, demagoguery, and—especially—willingness to undermine elections to win, we don’t go back to normalcy. The consequences won’t happen as swiftly as war, but they will be irreversible.

Life will go on. No one promised us we’d always have a functional government. Most people don’t. They live their lives and the generations roll forward. But this is one of those moments where we could stop things. I don’t expect we will.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Power Rankings, September 2019

The latest Des Moines Register/Ann Selzer poll is out in Iowa, and it seems like a great inflection point to consider where the Dem candidates are sitting. (I am enjoying a relaxed Sunday morning in Antwerp thinking about something other than beer—politics, joy!) In that poll, it’s Warren (22%), Biden (20%), Sanders (11%), Buttigieg (9%), and Harris (6%).

The last time I did one of these things was early April, which was still quite early in the race (Biden hadn’t yet formally announced). Beto had had his little flurry, which looked real in the way Buttigieg’s would turn out to be, and we assumed folks like Booker and Klobuchar would be strong candidates. I ranked them like this, based not on polling but my judgment about who could win the race. First Tier: Kamala Harris (1), Bernie Sanders (2), Beto O’Rourke (3), Elizabeth Warren (4). Second Tier: Pete Buttigieg (5), Cory Booker (6), Amy Klobuchar (7), Joe Biden (8).

Obviously, things have changed tremendously. I have continued to be bearish on Biden’s prospects, but there’s no way to dismiss him now. Kamala I overrated based on the primary schedule and her native charisma. In the event she’s run one of the worst campaigns I can remember, playing defense, equivocating, and somehow also managing to appear aloof and even cold.

My take now is that it’s a four-person race, but each candidate has at some liabilities they’ll have to overcome. Instead of ranking I’ll give each a percentage likelihood of winning:
  • Warren (35%)
  • Biden (30%)
  • Sanders (20%)
  • Harris (10%)
  • Some other candidate (5%)

If everything weren’t so consequential, it would be fascinating at a political level. Warren has clearly given voters the clearest message and reason to vote for her. In any other year, her abundant charisma, clever issue-framing, and exceptional policy platform (whether you agree with it or not, it’s specific and comprehensive) would carry the day. But she has done an absolutely crap job of reaching out to nonwhite voters. That’s a big part of politics, and it’s why Bernie lost last year. It’s not enough to offer a platform you believe will appeal to all, you actually have to do the legwork of building those coalitions. She hasn’t, and the Black vote is the sole reason Biden is in a strong position to win it.

However, winning Iowa would be a huge boost, especially because she’d be in a great position to win New Hampshire. Warren in a dead heat in the polls with Biden is a pick ‘em. Warren in a dead heat plus the two first states? That’d be huge.

Biden’s biggest weakness is of course Biden. He’s a bad candidate. This is reflected by the softness of his numbers; while he’s the front-runner and doing well in polls against Trump, people are willing to stick with him. But he hasn’t done anything to make a pro-Biden case. Few of his supporters look at his candidacy and platform and think: yeah, baby, that’s what I want! But his strengths are considerable. If he wins Iowa, New Hampshire wouldn’t matter nearly as much with Black-majority South Carolina in the wings (and with Iowa, he might win NH). On the other hand, his support is very weak and provisional. People support him because he looks like a winner. If support reaches a critical low point, it could completely collapse.

Bernie has always been in the opposite boat—his support isn’t as broad, but it’s a mile deep. Unfortunately for him, it’s becoming apparent that it’s narrower than he hoped, as Warren continues to chip into it. The thing that limits Bernie’s appeal is exactly why that minority like him: he’s a fiery idealist (detractors would say dogmatist) who has never compromised. Unlike Warren, he’s done the coalitional work to appeal to Black voters, though, and would be broadly acceptable to most Dems.
The challenge for an old guy whose politics haven’t changed in 50 years is figuring out how to create new interest in the campaign. I think his biggest hope is seeing Biden and Warren falter. This isn’t a bad strategy—a lot of campaigns have been won that way! Iowa is a big deal, though, and the new poll isn’t good news for him.

Last is Kamala, whose built-in advantages offset her poor campaign and poll weakness in a way no other candidate can claim. If she could put her campaign back on track, these strengths would give her huge help. (Half the states voting on Super Tuesday have large Black populations, her home state of CA is early, and SC—60% Black—is the third to vote.) But she’s going to have to completely abandon the timid, don’t-lose approach and give voters a reason to give her another look.

It’s hard to see any other candidate emerging. Like, really hard. Mayor Pete will not get the Black vote; even winning Iowa would be a dead end. Klobuchar is in the same boat. Booker has run a great campaign but can’t break through, which is bad news—what more can you do when you’ve left it all on the field already and are polling at 2%? Yang, Gabbard, O’Rourke, Castro—they either have extremely low ceilings or just aren’t getting it done.

Then again, it’s 2019, so Marianne Williamson will obviously win.
Finally, just a note on probability. I give no one even a coin’s-toss chance of winning. The difference between Warren and Biden are marginal, but in either case, you’d bet on the field against them.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Late August

There are moments throughout the year that can't be mistaken for any other season. The ice blue of a winter sky might happen on a clear day in late November or February; the still swelter of midafternoon under dark green leaves might be early June or mid-August. A chill, rattling rain in Portland? Who knows.

But late yesterday afternoon as I pedaled through Portland, the moment was unmistakable. A delicate, lacy layer of clouds interrupted the sun's heat, but a steamy humidity warmed the air. Lawns were burned to hay, and a few dry leaves clattered across the pavement. Something about the color of the light seemed less saturated, slightly washed-out.

It was a day that could only have fallen in the last week of August or the first of September. It felt like the end of things--but not the *very* end. Is there anything as delicious as a day perfectly suited for its time?