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“Politicians Protecting Themselves”: Ideology And Polarization Are Trumping All Of The Old Rules Of Politics

If you need convincing that 2015 wasn’t just an “outlier” of a year in American politics, where all of the old rules seemed to fly out the window, please read Mark Schmitt’s fascinating piece in the New York Times earlier this week that examines the rapid decline of some of the bedrock principles of political behavior we all used to take for granted. You cannot, he concludes, blame any of this weirdness on Donald Trump; it’s preceded his rise for a good while.

He may be changing the rules of the presidential primary race, but in the halls of Congress and in governors’ mansions across the country, politicians have already acted in ways that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. By testing and breaking the rules, they have been reshaping the practice of politics since long before Mr. Trump emerged.

Members of Congress, Schmitt observes, are showing unprecedented independence from their own constituents, and so, too, are state elected officials. In both cases they are beginning to refuse to “bring home the bacon” if they dislike the ideological provenance of the cook:

[S]everal members even announced in 2013 that they would not assist constituents with problems involving the Affordable Care Act. The idea of not just neglecting but actively refusing constituent services, for reasons of ideology, would be unimaginable to the constituent-focused members of Congress of both parties elected beginning in the 1970s.

Governors, too, rejected everything from infrastructure spending to federal funding for Medicaid expansion. Even when they saw their approval ratings drop into the 30s, they survived. In 2011, Rick Scott of Florida rejected $2.4 billion in federal funds for a commuter rail project and yet got reelected.

The widespread expectation that red states would accept the Medicaid expansion once the Supreme Court made it voluntary, as a deal too good to refuse, is an example of the old conventional wisdom.  In nearly half the states, ideology trumped helping constituents access available funds and services.

Schmitt believes that predictable partisan voting patterns and special-interest pressure have combined with ideology to all but kill the once-reigning assumption of American politics: the “median voter theorem,” which held that politicians of both parties would inevitably cater to the interests of swing voters in the middle of the ideological spectrum in the pursuit of a majority. It’s the basis of the still-common belief that in competitive contests candidates have to “shift to the center” to win general elections no matter how much time they spend “pandering to the base” in primaries. If, however, an ever-higher percentage of voters simply and reflexively pull the lever for the party with which they identify, then keeping them motivated enough to vote — perhaps by negative attacks on the hated partisan foe — becomes far more important than appealing to an ever-shrinking number of “swing voters.” Eventually, as Schmitt suggests, the whole idea of accountability to voters begins to fade, as pols try to figure out how to protect themselves via gerrymandering and oceans of special-interest money.

[B]y recasting politics as a winner-take-all conflict between wholly incompatible ideologies and identities — as most of the presidential candidates have done — they help to closely align party and ideology, so that those who identify as Republican will always vote Republican and vice versa. When politicians know more or less who will vote and how, they can ignore most voters — including their own loyalists.

Schmitt attributes a lot of these trends to the conquest of the GOP by conservative ideologues, but also notes that the declining competition for median voters has liberated Democrats — themselves less constrained by a conservative minority that barely exists anymore — to think bigger and bolder thoughts about the role of government than they have at any time since the Great Society era. So judging the new rules of politics as a good or a bad thing will most definitely depend on one’s own ideological perspective.

If Donald Trump didn’t cause the fading of the old political order, is he nonetheless benefiting from it? Quite probably so, in that he is the living symbol of spitting defiance to the belief of Republican elites that the median voter theorem required a less viscerally angry and culturally reactionary GOP. Indeed, political observers view Trump as strange and scary precisely because the old rules that would have consigned him to the dustbin of history don’t seem to be in operation anymore. We’d better all lower our resistance to the unexpected.


By: Ed Kilgore, Daily Intelligencer, New York Magazine, January 6, 2015

January 7, 2016 Posted by | Donald Trump, GOP Primaries, Ideology | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Plight Of Syrian Refugees Recalls Tale Of 2,000 Years Ago”: Bar The Gates, Exclude The Stranger, Ignore The Vulnerable

There is irony aplenty in this season, which is celebrated throughout Christendom because of the tale of a babe born in a troubled precinct in the Middle East a little more than 2,000 years ago. You know the story: A couple of modest means finds no accommodations, even as the woman is on the brink of giving birth. After the child is born, they are forced to flee the depredations of a murderous king.

As history rolls on, we find the Middle East once again in upheaval, roiled by murderous tyrants who have spurred families to seek sanctuary. Given the time of year, you’d think the plight of those families would be the preoccupation of the news cycle; you’d think accommodating them would be the pre-eminent call of preachers and politicians alike. After all, the ancient tale has been said to inspire reflection, charity and generosity.

But those sentiments seem in scant supply in these United States. Instead, we are awash in suspicion, waylaid by fear and anxiety, beset by bigotry. Many of the nation’s political leaders have insisted that we bar the gates, exclude the stranger, ignore the vulnerable.

While President Obama has called on the nation to take in more refugees from Syria — where the armies of President Bashar Assad and the self-proclaimed Islamic State represent dire threats to life and limb — 27 U.S. governors, more than half, would attempt to bar Syrian refugees from their states. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has famously said that he wouldn’t even take in orphans under the age of 5.

Indeed, the call to keep Syrian refugees out of the United States has captured a substantial number of voters; 56 percent oppose President Obama’s policy. And that refusal finds support across party lines: Eighty-one percent of Republicans, 59 percent of independents and 31 percent of Democrats, according to an NBC News survey.

The proximate cause of that hunker-down insularity is the threat of terrorist attacks, a danger brought home by the San Bernardino atrocity earlier this month, which left 14 people dead and 22 injured. But humans are notoriously bad at assessing risks. While 45 Americans have been killed in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11 (counting the Fort Hood shooting), far more have been killed since then in automobile accidents and non-terrorist-related gun violence.

Besides, as the brilliant novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson has written: “Contemporary America is full of fear. (But) fear is not a Christian habit of mind. … Those who forget God can be recognized in the fact that they make irrational responses to irrational fears. … There are always real dangers in the world, sufficient to their day. Fearfulness obscures the distinction between real threat on one hand and on the other the terrors that beset those who see threat everywhere.”

Terror is not everywhere, and its risks would not increase if we were to admit substantially more Syrian refugees. They are subjected to a vetting process that takes up to two years. Anyway, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the married couple who allegedly carried out the San Bernardino attack, had no ties to Syria that authorities have detected.

Meanwhile, millions of Syrians have been displaced by war. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Turkey has taken in 1.9 million, while Iraq, which is still beset by armed conflict, has taken in 250,000. More than 1 million Syrian refugees are in Lebanon, and more than 600,000 are in Jordan.

The far wealthier European nations are still wrangling over the numbers they will accept, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been steadfast in her welcoming tone; her country has taken in more than 98,000 Syrians and stands ready to accept as many as 500,000 refugees, including Syrians, per year for several years.

With that in mind, President Obama’s call for the United States to take in at least 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year seems modest. And while providing sanctuary to some of the planet’s most vulnerable populations may not promote peace on Earth, it is certainly a small gesture of goodwill to all men.


By: Cynthia Tucker Haynes, Pulitzer Prize Winner for Commentary in 2007; The National Memo, December 26, 2015

December 27, 2015 Posted by | Bigotry, Fearmongering, Jesus, Syrian Refugees | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Hey, Democrats; Relax Already”: Reports Of Liberalism’s Imminent Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

The meme of the past week or two in my circles is that the Democrats are screwed. Not necessarily in terms of the presidential election, which, one year out, their front-runner is reasonably well-positioned to win. But everywhere else, from Congress on down to dogcatcher.

Matt Yglesias kicked this off over at Vox on October 19, arguing that while the presidency obviously matters, “there are also thousands of critically important offices all the way down the ballot. And the vast majority — 70 percent of state legislatures, more than 60 percent of governors, 55 percent of attorneys general and secretaries of state — are in Republican hands.” Democrats, he wrote, have no plan to do anything about this.

People panicked, and the Twitter cyclone hit. Then came Tuesday’s elections, which from Kentucky to Houston seemed to confirm the thesis. Then Lee Drutman followed up in Vox agreeing with Yglesias  and citing research suggesting that all this was happening because—how to put this politely?—low-information voters toward the lower end of economic spectrum vote according to an ideology that doesn’t align with their economic status. He means white working-class people who vote Republican. And on the website of Democracy, the journal I edit, Nathan Pippinger responded to Drutman by writing that Democrats are in trouble not because of “false consciousness among working-class voters, but because conservatives’ state-level policies helped to undermine the paths through which those voters might become more involved in the political process.” He means mostly unions. But he basically buys the future of “liberal disappointment.”

Wow. Is it really as bad as all that? No, it’s not. And here are the two main reasons why.

First: The party that controls the presidency for eight years almost always gets killed at the state level over the course of those eight years. And it stands to reason—if people are unhappy with the way things are going, which they typically are about something or other, they’ll vote for the out-of-power party.

So political scientist Larry Sabato has studied this question going back to FDR’s time and found that every two-term presidency (he’s counting things like the Kennedy-Johnson period from 1960-68 as a single two-term presidency) except one has taken a huge beating at the congressional and state levels. You’ve perhaps read recently that during Barack Obama’s term, the Democrats have lost 913 state legislative seats. That’s a hell of a lot, but it’s not that crazily out of line with the average since FDR/Truman, which is 576. Only Ronald Reagan managed to avoid such losses—the GOP actually gained six state legislative seats during his years, which was the time when the Dixiecrats and some Northern white ethnics started becoming Republicans.

Sabato’s piece, which ran last December in Politico, is even headlined “Why Parties Should Hope They Lose the White House.” You win at 1600, you start losing everywhere else. Granted the Obama-era losses are unusual. I’d suppose they’re mostly explained by the lagging economy and stagnant wages. Race has to have something to do with it, too, and Tea Party rage, and of course the fact that Democrats don’t vote in off-year elections. Indeed this last factor may be the biggest one, because the Democratic Party has become more and more reliant in recent years on precisely the groups of voters who have long been known not to participate as much in off-year elections—minorities, young people, single women.

So sure, it blows to look at a map like the one embedded in Yglesias’s piece and see all that red indicating total Republican control in some state capitals where that shouldn’t really be the case: Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio. And it blows harder for the people who live there, although obviously a majority of them don’t think so.

But I would make a couple quick arguments here. First, 2014 and especially 2010 were unique election years, with high unemployment in 2010 and high-octane right-wing fury in both. That flipped some state houses and executive mansions that will return to the blue column eventually, in more normal times.

Second, there are a lot of blue states that still elect Republican governors, whereas there aren’t many red states that will elect a Democrat. Three presidential-level red states have Democratic governors (Missouri, Montana, and West Virginia), and they’re about the only ones you could imagine doing so as you look down the list. Whereas nine blue states have Republican governors. Most of those governors are comparatively moderate, and it doesn’t really change the fundamental nature of Massachusetts that it elects a Republican governor some of the time.

But—the party affiliation of the man or woman in the White House does change the fundamental nature of the United States. And that brings us to my second reason why the Democrats aren’t yet finished. They have the presidency. What did Elvis Costello say—“don’t bury me cuz I’m not dead yet”? Well, you’re not doomed yet as long as you’re living in the White House.

Let me ask you this question. Assuming this Sabato correlation between White House control and losses at other levels holds up, how many of you Democrats reading this would take this deal: Democrats lose the White House next year and in 2020 in exchange for, say, 1) retaking control of the House of Representatives in 2022 and 2) picking up 576 state legislative seats over the next eight years?

I guess some Democrats would take that deal, but I think a small minority, and rightly so. Losing the White House means a 7-2 conservative Supreme Court majority for 30 more years. That could well mean, would likely mean, a decision in the next few years overturning same-sex marriage, and a dozen other horrors, from campaign finance to corporate power to religious issues to civil rights matters to a number of Fourteenth Amendment-related issues including Roe v. Wade. It means, combined with GOP majorities in both houses of Congress, God knows what legislatively; the end of the federal minimum wage? A flat tax, or at least a radically reduced top marginal rate? Entitlement “reform”? And don’t forget not just what they’d do, but what they’d undo. It means repeal of Obamacare, legislation that effectively rescinds Dodd-Frank, all of Obama’s work on immigration and carbon ripped to pieces, and on and on and on. And, you know, like, another war.

In the face of all that, I’m supposed to give a shit who the governor of Michigan is? Please.

The Democrats have only one problem in this realm. They have to get their people to vote in midterm elections. Period. That’s it. Now that isn’t easy to do; could take between 10 and 20 years. And it will cost a lot of money to do it right. But if it gets done and done right, then the red tide can be arrested, at least to the extent that Sabato’s numbers suggest. But anybody who’d rather give up the White House for control of eight more governors’ mansions and 11 more state legislatures needs his coconut examined. If bleeding at the state level is inevitable because of White House control, then let it bleed.


By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, November 7, 2015

November 9, 2015 Posted by | Democrats, Liberals, State Legislatures, Voter Turnout | , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Invest In Your Child’s Future: Pay Teachers More

From the debates in Wisconsin and elsewhere about public sector unions, you might get the impression that we’re going bust because teachers are overpaid.

That’s a pernicious fallacy. A basic educational challenge is not that teachers are raking it in, but that they are underpaid. If we want to compete with other countries, and chip away at poverty across America, then we need to pay teachers more so as to attract better people into the profession.

Until a few decades ago, employment discrimination perversely strengthened our teaching force. Brilliant women became elementary school teachers, because better jobs weren’t open to them. It was profoundly unfair, but the discrimination did benefit America’s children.

These days, brilliant women become surgeons and investment bankers — and 47 percent of America’s kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers come from the bottom one-third of their college classes (as measured by SAT scores). The figure is from a study by McKinsey & Company, “Closing the Talent Gap.”

Changes in relative pay have reinforced the problem. In 1970, in New York City, a newly minted teacher at a public school earned about $2,000 less in salary than a starting lawyer at a prominent law firm. These days the lawyer takes home, including bonus, $115,000 more than the teacher, the McKinsey study found.

We all understand intuitively the difference a great teacher makes. I think of Juanita Trantina, who left my fifth-grade class intoxicated with excitement for learning and fascinated by the current events she spoke about. You probably have a Miss Trantina in your own past.

One Los Angeles study found that having a teacher from the 25 percent most effective group of teachers for four years in a row would be enough to eliminate the black-white achievement gap.

Recent scholarship suggests that good teachers, even kindergarten teachers, increase their students’ earnings many years later. Eric A. Hanushek of Stanford University found that an excellent teacher (one a standard deviation better than average, or better than 84 percent of teachers) raises each student’s lifetime earnings by $20,000. If there are 20 students in the class, that is an extra $400,000 generated, compared with a teacher who is merely average.

A teacher better than 93 percent of other teachers would add $640,000 to lifetime pay of a class of 20, the study found.

Look, I’m not a fan of teachers’ unions. They used their clout to gain job security more than pay, thus making the field safe for low achievers. Teaching work rules are often inflexible, benefits are generous relative to salaries, and it is difficult or impossible to dismiss teachers who are ineffective.

But none of this means that teachers are overpaid. And if governments nibble away at pensions and reduce job security, then they must pay more in wages to stay even.

Moreover, part of compensation is public esteem. When governors mock teachers as lazy, avaricious incompetents, they demean the profession and make it harder to attract the best and brightest. We should be elevating teachers, not throwing darts at them.

Consider three other countries renowned for their educational performance: Singapore, South Korea and Finland. In each country, teachers are drawn from the top third of their cohort, are hugely respected and are paid well (although that’s less true in Finland). In South Korea and Singapore, teachers on average earn more than lawyers and engineers, the McKinsey study found.

“We’re not going to get better teachers unless we pay them more,” notes Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust, an education reform organization. Likewise, Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform says, “We’re the first people to say, throw them $100,000, throw them whatever it takes.”

Both Ms. Wilkins and Ms. Allen add in the next breath that pay should be for performance, with more rigorous evaluation. That makes sense to me.

Starting teacher pay, which now averages $39,000, would have to rise to $65,000 to fill most new teaching positions in high-needs schools with graduates from the top third of their classes, the McKinsey study found. That would be a bargain.

Indeed, it makes sense to cut corners elsewhere to boost teacher salaries. Research suggests that students would benefit from a tradeoff of better teachers but worse teacher-student ratios. Thus there are growing calls for a Japanese model of larger classes, but with outstanding, respected, well-paid teachers.

Teaching is unusual among the professions in that it pays poorly but has strong union protections and lockstep wage increases. It’s a factory model of compensation, and critics are right to fault it. But the bottom line is that we should pay teachers more, not less — and that politicians who falsely lambaste teachers as greedy are simply making it more difficult to attract the kind of above-average teachers our above-average children deserve.

By: Nicholas Kristof, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, March 12, 2011

March 13, 2011 Posted by | Education, Employment Descrimination, Professionals, Teachers | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

No Glory For Governors Trying To Do The Right Fiscal Thing

If you want to get national attention as a governor these days, don’t try to be innovative about solving the problems you were elected to deal with – in education, transportation and health care. No, if you want ink and television time, just cut and cut and cut some more.

Almost no one in the national media is noticing governors who say the reasonable thing: that state budget deficits, caused largely by drops in revenue in the economic downturn, can’t be solved by cuts or tax increases alone.

There is nothing courageous about an ideological governor hacking away at programs that partisans of his philosophy, including campaign contributors, want eliminated. That’s staying in your comfort zone.

The brave ones are governors such as Jerry Brown in California, Dan Malloy in Connecticut, Pat Quinn in Illinois, Mark Dayton in Minnesota and Neil Abercrombie in Hawaii. They are declaring that you have to cut programs, even when your own side likes them, and raise taxes, which nobody likes much at all. Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee has warned of possible tax increases too.

Indeed, to the extent that Quinn received any national press coverage, he got pilloried in conservative outlets in January when he signed tax hikes that included a temporary increase in Illinois’ individual income tax rate from 3 percent to 5 percent.

Despite all the commotion around whether the federal government will shut down, the clamor in the states may be even more important than what’s happening in Washington, which is missing in action on the moment’s most vital fiscal question.

What states are doing to ease their fiscal agonies will only slow down our fragile economic recovery, and may stop it altogether. The last thing we need right now are state and local governments draining jobs and money from the economy, yet that is what they are being forced to do.

As the last three monthly reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed, an economy that created a net 317,000 private-sector jobs lost 70,000 state and local government jobs. Cutbacks are dead weight on the recovery.

In a more rational political climate, President Obama would have resurrected the lovely old Republican idea of federal revenue sharing. Washington should have continued replenishing state budgets for two more years, until we were certain the economic storms had passed. Instead, anything that might be called “stimulus” – “S” is now a scarlet letter in politics – was rejected out of hand.

The federal government could also help the states by picking up more of their Medicaid costs. In the long run, health-care spending should be a responsibility of the national government – as it is in almost every other wealthy democracy. A national commitment would end the specter of states forcing already financially beleaguered citizens off the health insurance rolls.

Such ideas are off the table because the current rage is not for figuring out how to make government work better – a cause that once united governors of both parties – but for cutting back even its most basic and popular functions.

Consider the new budget Gov. Scott Walker announced in Wisconsin on Tuesday. Among other things, he proposed cutting state aid to schools by $834 million over the next two years, a 7.9 percent reduction.

On top of that, Walker would make it harder for localities and school districts to make up for the shortfall by limiting their ability to raise property taxes. This isn’t about education reform. It’s about forcing larger class sizes, layoffs, reductions in extracurricular activities or cuts in teacher pay and benefits. But, hey, if it’s labeled “government,” let’s slash it.

What’s truly amazing, as reported recently, is the number of governors who are cutting taxes at the same time they are eviscerating programs. A particularly dramatic case is Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott. He faces a $3.5 billion budget gap – and is pushing for $2 billion in corporate and property tax cuts.

Historically, times of fiscal stress forced states to make useful economies in programs that didn’t work or were not essential. But what’s happening in so many places now is a reckless rush to gut the parts of government that all but the most extreme libertarians support – and that truly deserve to be seen (one thinks of education and programs for poor children) as investments in the future.

And those governors doing the hard work trying to balance cutbacks and tax increases get ignored, because there’s nothing sexy about being responsible.

By: E. J Dionne, Op-Ed Columnist, The Washington Post, March 3, 2011

March 3, 2011 Posted by | Budget, Deficits, Economy | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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