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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

“A Real And Tangible Atrocity”: The Groveland Four, Justice Denied For 66 Years… And Counting

It was the road sign that made it real.

Josh Venkataraman was returning to the University of Florida, where he is a senior, from Orlando earlier this year when he saw it. “Groveland,” it said.

He had read what happened there in Gilbert King’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Devil in the Grove, for a class a few years before “and it touched me.” But seeing that sign did more; bringing home to him that Groveland was a real and tangible place where a real and tangible atrocity unfolded beginning in 1949. That, he says, was when he knew “I really wanted to get involved and change history, essentially.”

So Venkataraman, who, as a high-school student, won a Silver Knight, a service award given by The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, sought out Carol Greenlee, a 65-year-old consultant in Nashville. Her father, Charles Greenlee, was the last of the so-called “Groveland Four.” He died in 2012.

She admits she was skeptical of this 21-year-old kid and questioned him closely. But when Venkataraman asked for her support in mounting a petition drive on behalf of her father and the other men, she gave it. “I’m in the mode of trying to get my father exonerated,” she explains, “and I need all the help I can get.”

The two of them want one thing from you: your name on their petition. It’s at To reiterate: They’re not asking Florida Gov. Rick Scott for a pardon. They want exoneration — recognition that these men were not just innocent of the crime for which they were charged, but that the “crime” itself never happened.

King details in his book how a young white woman named Norma Lee Padgett concocted a tale of gang rape by four black men. A doctor’s exam turned up no evidence of sexual assault. Neighbors who saw Padgett right after the alleged attack said she was neither disheveled nor panicked. They scoffed at the idea she was raped, but refused to testify for the defense. “Wouldn’t do to be called n—-r lover,” one said.

In Klan-infested postwar Florida, Padgett’s flimsy claim was enough for police to essentially start rounding up black men en masse: Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, Ernest Thomas, and Charles Greenlee. The men didn’t all know each other. No forensic evidence tied them to the “crime.” But again, this was Florida in 1949.

Before it was over, a white mob would rampage through an African-American community, one man would be killed trying to escape, three would be beaten and tortured, the sheriff would summarily execute one man, and the remaining two would be convicted.

Carol, born shortly after her father’s arrest, says she grew up feeling a “cloud” over the Greenlee name. When she was young, her mother used to take her to visit him weekly “until he couldn’t take it to see me anymore and he told my mother not to ever bring me back there again.” She didn’t see him again until he was paroled. She was 11 by then.

Here’s why this matters: Some people like to pretend the world sprang into existence yesterday. In an era of mass incarceration and epidemic police misbehavior, they earnestly wonder why African-Americans often don’t trust law enforcement. Here, then, is an instructive reminder, past tapping present on the shoulder — justice denied for 66 years and counting.

“You still have innocent people,” says Carol Greenlee, “innocent black men, every day being rejected, being dejected and being put in prison for things they have not done. So we’ve got to find a way to correct the injustice that a group of people have been experiencing for years. I’m 65 years old and I’m still looking for justice for my father, who was wrongfully imprisoned for something he didn’t do and really didn’t happen. Why don’t you correct that?”


By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, September 28, 2015

September 29, 2015 Posted by | African Americans, Racial Injustice, The Groveland Four | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“It’s Looking Like Mother Knew Best”: The Reason Jeb Looks So Miserable

Here’s a thought experiment for you. Imagine you could find a person who didn’t know 1) who Jeb Bush was or 2) what pursuit he was involved in. You showed the person a video clip of a Bush press conference or speech, but with the sound turned down, and you asked the person, just based on the expression on Bush’s face and the hang of his shoulders and whatnot, where is this man, and what is he doing?

I think your person would say something like: “Well…he looks like he’s at a funeral. Attending the funeral of a friend’s mother. Or maybe not even a friend. Maybe a co-worker, or employee. He didn’t know the woman. But he’s there, because he needs to be, and he’s paying his respects. ‘I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m sure she was a wonderful woman.’ He’s doing his duty, but he also looks like he’d really rather be somewhere else.”

Bush has a lot of problems, which have become excruciatingly evident this week as he’s managed to offend Latinos and Asians and women (again) while still making no apparent headway with the kinds of people you’re supposed to make headway with by offending the aforementioned. But when you get right down to it, this is his problem. The Donald pegged him. He is a “low-energy person.” He looks like he has only the barest minimum interest in doing this.

On some level, politics is all about the gene. John Ellis doesn’t have it. No zest. No happy warrior thing going on at all. Say what you will about Dubya, and trust me, I said most of it at one time or another. But he had the gene. He liked politics. He enjoyed campaigning. He pinned his shoulders back up on stage, stood erect, gazed upon the crowd with something you might call command. Remember that smirk? Oh God how liberals hated that smirk! I remember how people on my side used to carry on about it, how it betrayed exactly the kind of shoot-first cowboy braggadocio that liberals find repulsive—and indeed, that ended up fucking up a big part of the world to this day. So we were right about that smirk. But at least he was smiling. At least he was up there having fun.

But Jeb. Yeesh. What’s he doing out there? It’s just duty. And not family duty either. Remember, his mom said he shouldn’t do it. His wife seems cool on it. At best. So it’s not family. It’s mostly party duty. Duty to the money people. Class duty.

Watching him I sometimes wonder: How did this guy get to be a governor? One thing I’ve learned in my years of covering politics, one of the more surprising things, I would say, is just how many utter mediocrities become governors. This is understandable in a lot of those puny states out there where the competition ain’t so great. And where either one party or the other is clearly dominant. So if you’re a Republican state legislator in Wyoming and you have a little charisma, or a Democratic mayor of Providence who has successfully avoided indictment for eight years, well, you can get to be governor. The road is not laid with many traps.

But Florida’s a big state. Probably a lot of talent there, comparatively speaking. How did Bush do it? Well, he was elected (1998) at a time when his last name was still a plus. And he was a Republican, and Florida elects Republican governors as a rule—I mean crikey, they’ve twice voted in a guy who swindled the federal government on Medicare, which many voters probably saw as a plus. So that’s all it took. He was a Republican, and his name was Bush.

But now that his last name is a liability, even (or especially) among GOP primary voters, he has to go out and get it, and the first step in getting it is wanting it, and he doesn’t seem to want it. In fact it looks like he dreads the thought of becoming president. Or is indifferent to it, which might be worse. Candidates have problems that they can fix. But how do you fix that problem?

So here’s how things seem to be shaping up, maybe. There’s going to be Trump. And then, after the rattle and hum of the first few contests, and the Perrys and Jindals and so forths have gone on their merry ways, there’s going to be one anointed non-Trump, whom the party’s panjandrums decide to get behind collectively in order to stop Trump. And that person is likely to be either Bush or Scott Walker or Marco Rubio or John Kasich. Or maybe someone else. (What’s that I hear you say? Mitt Romney? Not, at this point, an insane idea. Think about it.)

The non-Trump should easily and clearly have been Bush. And it still could be. I notice that still this week, even while Bush is getting slagged by everybody, the political futures market continues to rate him the favorite for the Republican nomination. So the wisdom of the crowd still says Bush, but we sense that it’s said in the same way that people might say “New England” or “Seattle” when asked who’ll win next year’s Super Bowl. The answer doesn’t reflect thought and analysis, just resigned reflex.

So he could still be the nominee, and by definition that means he could still be the next president. But as of now, he looks to have the makings of being one of the biggest flops in the history of presidential politics. A year ago all the experts thought otherwise, and sometimes the experts are right, but in this case, it’s looking like Mother knew best.


By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, August 28, 2015

August 29, 2015 Posted by | GOP Presidential Candidates, GOP Primaries, Jeb Bush | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Consistently Stirring Up Racial Animus”: Right Wing Media And Their “Racialized Political Fodder”

In what is purported to be Dylann Roof’s “manifesto,” he writes that this is where it all began:

The event that truly awakened me was the Trayvon Martin case. I kept hearing and seeing his name, and eventually I decided to look him up. I read the Wikipedia article and right away I was unable to understand what the big deal was. It was obvious that Zimmerman was in the right. But more importantly this prompted me to type in the words “black on White crime” into Google, and I have never been the same since that day. The first website I came to was the Council of Conservative Citizens.

Reading that reminded me of how Ta-Nehisi Coates meticulously laid out the process by which the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman became “racialized political fodder” for right wing media.

The reaction to the tragedy was, at first, trans-partisan. Conservatives either said nothing or offered tepid support for a full investigation—and in fact it was the Republican governor of Florida, Rick Scott, who appointed the special prosecutor who ultimately charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder. As civil-rights activists descended on Florida, National Review, a magazine that once opposed integration, ran a column proclaiming “Al Sharpton Is Right.” The belief that a young man should be able to go to the store for Skittles and an iced tea and not be killed by a neighborhood watch patroller seemed uncontroversial…

The moment Obama spoke, the case of Trayvon Martin passed out of its national-mourning phase and lapsed into something darker and more familiar—racialized political fodder. The illusion of consensus crumbled. Rush Limbaugh denounced Obama’s claim of empathy. The Daily Caller, a conservative Web site, broadcast all of Martin’s tweets, the most loutish of which revealed him to have committed the unpardonable sin of speaking like a 17-year-old boy. A white supremacist site called Stormfront produced a photo of Martin with pants sagging, flipping the bird. Business Insider posted the photograph and took it down without apology when it was revealed to be a fake.

Newt Gingrich pounced on Obama’s comments: “Is the president suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot, that would be okay because it wouldn’t look like him?” Reverting to form, National Review decided the real problem was that we were interested in the deaths of black youths only when nonblacks pulled the trigger. John Derbyshire, writing for Taki’s Magazine, an iconoclastic libertarian publication, composed a racist advice column for his children inspired by the Martin affair. (Among Derbyshire’s tips: never help black people in any kind of distress; avoid large gatherings of black people; cultivate black friends to shield yourself from charges of racism.)

The notion that Zimmerman might be the real victim began seeping out into the country, aided by PR efforts by his family and legal team…In April, when Zimmerman set up a Web site to collect donations for his defense, he raised more than $200,000 in two weeks, before his lawyer asked that he close the site and launched a new, independently managed legal-defense fund…

…Before President Obama spoke, the death of Trayvon Martin was generally regarded as a national tragedy. After Obama spoke, Martin became material for an Internet vendor flogging paper gun-range targets that mimicked his hoodie and his bag of Skittles… Before the president spoke, George Zimmerman was arguably the most reviled man in America. After the president spoke, Zimmerman became the patron saint of those who believe that an apt history of racism begins with Tawana Brawley and ends with the Duke lacrosse team.

There you have it, folks. Because President Obama simply said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” the right wing media in this country went into a frenzy. That’s when they got Roof’s attention. The rest was up to the white supremacist group, the Council of Conservative Citizens.

Dylann Storm Roof is certainly responsible for his own horrific actions this past week. But we can’t ignore the way the right wing media has consistently stirred up racial animus amongst their viewers/listeners at every turn over the last seven years.


By: Nancy LeTourneau, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, June 20, 2015

June 22, 2015 Posted by | Council of Conservative Citizens, Racism, Right Wing Media, White Supremacists | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Stressed To The Breaking-Point”: House Republicans Aim To Cut Amtrak Funding The Day After Philadelphia Derailment

A New York–bound Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia last night, leaving at least six passengers dead and more than 200 injured. Department of Transportation and National Transportation Safety Board officials are investigating the reason for the accident, which is sure to be a flashpoint in an ongoing battle to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure.

The debate resumes today: The House Appropriations committee already had plans to mark up a bill on Wednesday that would, among other things, cut funding to Amtrak from $1.4 billion to $1.14 billion. (Britain, for the record, spends $8 billion annually on its rail network.) Not all Republicans are on board with the cuts. Pennsylvania Rep. Ryan Costello, who sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, on Wednesday promised he’s “not in that camp” and “if that bill shows a reduction when it hits the floor, myself and others, I think you’re going to see amendments to make sure that there is stable funding on the northeast corridor.”

President Richard Nixon created Amtrak in 1970 to boost passenger rail service, but he made it a for-profit corporation. That’s the cause of many its political troubles today. Amtrak has never been able to turn a profit, and Republicans—who favor a fully privatized rail system—are loath to spend taxpayer dollars on a money-losing operations. They have repeatedly threatened to slash federal funding for Amtrak, which has struggled to make do with what Congress gives it. In an annual report to Congress from February, Amtrak President Joseph Boardman described “critical infrastructure stressed to the breaking-point” that result in “frequent service meltdowns”: “Efforts by Amtrak, the freight railroad industry, and state and local governments to address these problems are thwarted by the lack of adequate and reliable Federal funding to match state and local investments in rail, and to attract private investment capital and facilitate public-private partnerships.”

And yet, rail safety has improved in the last decade. The Huffington Post notes that accidents in 2014 were down 42 percent since 2006. Meanwhile, Amtrak ridership on the Northeast corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C., hit an all-time high in 2014. Amtrak accounts for over three-fourths of air and rail travel between Washington and New York, and two congressman happened to be on the same train last night: Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, who got off shortly before the derailment, and former Congressman Patrick Murphy, who was on it. Boardman says even the popular Northeast corridor is starved  “of the vital capital necessary to maintain and expand upon that success.”

2013 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the state of U.S. rail infrastructure a C+, slightly higher than the infrastructure grade for the nation as a whole (D+). By 2040, Amtrak expects traffic in the congested Northeast corridor to quadruple today’s ridership. “To meet future demand in the Northeast Corridor for both Amtrak and the eight commuter railroads that use the corridor, estimated investments are about $10 billion over the next 15 years to achieve a state of good repair and to increase train capacity by 40%,” ASCE writes. “Maintaining adequate track capacity to address expanding passenger and freight needs is among the largest challenges in creating a competitive passenger railroad network.”

Republicans don’t view passenger rail as energy-efficient travel that could only exist with public funds, but a sign of government mismanagement. Mitt Romney, while campaigning in 2012, said, “The subsidy for Amtrak, I would eliminate that.” But passenger rail, particularly the dream of bullet trains nationwide, is exactly the kind of project that necessitates government assistance—just like the transcontinental railroad did. Conservatives may liken it to a boondoggle, but California is constructing the nation’s first bullet train, at an estimated cost of $68 billion, with federal subsidies making up $3.3 billion of the secured funding. Amtrak puts estimates of the amount needed for an East Coast high-speed rail route at upwards of $110 billion. The private sector won’t take the risk on such a high startup cost. Yet, the House appropriations bill is clear: Not only does Amtrak receive less money, but “no funding is provided for high-speed rail.”

In April, the National Journal cited conservative funding battles as a main reason why America struggles to keep its rail functional and lags so far behind Western Europe and East Asia, which have faster, more efficient trains. Tea Party Republicans are responsible for shuttering the 2009 stimulus’ $8 billion in funds to connect 80 percent of the country to high-speed trains—the bulk of which would have gone to California, Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio. But when Republican governors Rick Scott, Scott Walker, and John Kasich swept into office in three of the four states, they rejected the hundreds  of millions of dollars in federal money. The funds were redirected to other transportation upgrades. But Walker later changed his mind, deciding that his state could use $150 million for Amtrak upgrades after all.


By: Rebecca Leber, The New Republic, May 13, 2015

May 14, 2015 Posted by | Amtrak, Congress, Infrastructure | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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