Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Read Stuff, You Should

Happy Birthday to Louise Wener, 47. I saw Sleeper opening for Elvis in Berkeley, I guess right at the top of their brief run...they were quite good! I had no idea what happened to her; turns out she's a successful novelist, apparently. How many rock star/novelists are there, anyway? The guy who is John Wesley Harding, I know; also Dr. Frank from Mr. T. I'm probably missing an obvious one.

Some good stuff:

1. Boris Shor on state legislature polarization.

2. Joan Walsh on Ralph Nader. One of the hallmarks of US politics is that democracy is the stated universal preference; support for any other form of government is a strong taboo, one of the strongest there is. In a lot of ways that's probably good; even those who really have no use for democracy not only are forced to declare their belief in it, but in most cases "believe in" democracy, even if they don't actually have any patience for real rule of the people. But those same declarations also make for a lot of confusion, since there's sort of a basic assumption that whatever political system we think is best must, by definition almost, be what "real" democracy is.

3. Julian Sanchez on the Ashcroft hospital showdown.

4. And Rick Hasen's Election Law Blog conquers the world, becomes more of a must-read than ever.


  1. "How many rock star/novelists are there, anyway?"

    Kinky Friedman? More of a country star/novelist, though.

  2. With regard to "democracy" and its importance in the American political system, I suppose it is very important and, at the same time, perhaps not. As Julius Caesar observed when people talked about the "republic," it is, after all, only a word, and it means pretty much whatever people want it to mean. Of course, that kind of thing got Caesar stabbed, but there was truth in it, nonetheless. Augustus, wiser in some ways, realized that the republic was words and forms -- but not necessarily any particular substance.

    I guess that is probably what democracy is in America. It is a word and a set of forms, but I am not sure it is of any particular substance. What I mean by that is not that it is a sham necessarily, but that the actual operations of the political system, never mind the policies, could take on radically different forms over time as long as the key forms are obeyed.

    In this I suspect America is not at all different from most other nations over history (I'm not a great believer in exceptionalism, in any case). The form and rhetoric of the Roman Republic, the Most Serene Republic of Venice, the Holy Empire (whether Roman or Byzantine), the Most Christian Kingdom of France, Holy Mother Russia, Imperial Japan, Imperial China, and you name it whatever else, tended to remain stable, sometimes over centuries, while the actual substance of the political system could change very markedly. It seems to be a constant of human psychology to accept large, important shifts as long as symbolic touchstones remain intact. After all, the American Constitution itself, for all its theoretical roots in various ancient and modern political traditions, largely took the form it did because most colonies had evolved to have an executive, a judiciary, and a bicameral legislature with an upper and lower house chosen by somewhat different methods, almost always spelled out in a written charter. The theory may have been radical (or not, depending on the school of historical argument you follow), but the forms were completely familiar.

    So, America will probably remain a democracy for a long time. On the other hand, in terms of actual substance, that may not mean all that much.

  3. This Nader quote is priceless:

    "I’m gonna find at least 10 enlightened billionaires, or multibillionaires"

    It reminded me of Scott Monje's observation the other day that Luxembourg had 300,000 index cards with pertinent info on its 500,000 citizens, a collection monitored by some anonymous civil servant who was, no doubt like the billionaires Nader seeks, 'enlightened'.

    When the aforementioned anonymous Luxembourg civil servant marshals the power of the state against his (unsuspecting) fellow citizen on card #214,577, he was doing the state's "enlightened" business, no doubt. The fact that the citizen on card #214,577 was seen suspiciously in public with the civil servant's wife, or parking on his lawn or somesuch was nothing more than happy coincidence to furthering the interests of the 'enlightened' state.

    Sort of following Anastasios' comment, the details are probably not that important about how a state goes about democracy, the issue is whether the guy on card #214,577 has his interests adequately protected from the intrusions of anonymous civil servants.

    Or 'enlightened' billionaires.

    1. Further, when Nader was in the process of publishing Unsafe at Any Speed, one can imagine the execs at GM and Ford vigorously protesting its suggestion that they were indifferent to consumer safety in pursuit of the almighty dollar.

      After all, they no doubt emphasized, we are (corrected for inflation) "enlightened billionaires, Mr. Nader".

    2. I'm sure that's so, CSH. However, unfortunately, I don't think we can rely on democracy to protect anyone's interests from the intrusions of civil servants or enlightened billionaires. Far from it. After all, Luxembourg is a democracy.

      More to the point, I can readily envision a situation in America in which there is no protection at all against such things, but where people are generally accepting and generally believe that democracy is still in place. Substance will have changed perhaps, but substance is not what is important. There will still be political speeches. Public figures will still piously invoke the founders and constitutional principles. Every other November, or even more often, people will troop off to the polls if they so desire. Things in substance could be very, very different. Civil servants might have a great deal more power. Enlightened billionaires might be gods. But the forms would be in place. And thus democracy, which is after all just a word and a set of forms, would, by general consent, still be in place, or at least, the grumblers would say, as much as it ever was. And, frankly, if the large majority agreed it was so, and acted as if it was so, then I suppose it would be so, whether interests were protected or not.

    3. FWIW, Anastasios, here's a contrarian view: perhaps the thing that keeps the partisan system more or less stable in the US is that both parties (at their finest) serve the goal of furthering the enfranchisement/empowerment of little people.

      As an example on the left, assuming the ACA works as advertised, then (as we have both noted) while it will probably impose some burden on the well-to-do, it will also certainly increase net "little guy empowerment". That's good! Similarly, civil rights legislation certainly increased little guy empowerment. That's also good!

      On the conservative side, efforts to restrict taxation and the intrusion of government certainly play a role in unleashing the animal spirits in small-time enterprises that are the engine of the economy, generating the prosperity that is empowering of the little guy. Also good!

      As long as the parties are doing their part, we should be alright, no? Even if we get some of the technical details wrong, or misname them, the system will still function, won't it?

      I was thinking more about your earlier comment this morning, and it occurred to me that this, really, may get to heart of the angst about the modern Republicans: they aren't doing their expected conservative part to foster individual enfranchisement, instead serving (it would seem) the interests of enlightened billionaires.

      If so, perhaps we have a test case: what happens on the right in America over the next several years will tell us whether the system self-corrects (for enfranchisement) or whether Nader's enlightened billionaires will simply squash us all.

    4. You know, CSH, that puts me in mind of something Reihan Salam wrote a while back. Salam isn't one of my favorites among the so-called reform conservatives, as he has a strong tendency to retreat into shilldom (I'm more of a Josh Barro or Ross Douthat man, myself). But he gave what I thought was a very clear eyed and brave accounting of what he thought stood in the way of a GOP that really fought for the little guy.

      As he said, there is plenty in conservative ideology that could support policies aimed at the middle class or working classes. Particularly policies like expanded EITC and child tax credits to encourage work and family formation. The problem isn't ideology, the problem is that actually enacting these policies would cut directly against powerful GOP interests.

      After all, where would the money for expanded EITC and child credits come from, particularly if you are committed to maintaining adequate safety nets? Some from reform of food stamps, unemployment, etc., but a good portion would have to be sponged off the wealthy, a GOP constituency, for the benefit of the poor, a Democratic constituency. Similarly if you really want to restrain health care costs, the conservative reformers favorite answer to the ACA, that means taking on health care providers, hospital executives, insurance companies, drug companies, large employers, and the general public. If the Democrats weren't willing to take those interests on, and instead crafted the ACA to at least partially co-opt them, why on Earth would the GOP be willing to go head to head with them?

      Much easier to just go along with whatever the big interests, which is to say the big donors, want -- things like upper income tax cuts, immigration reform, and entitlement reform that primarily hurts the middle class without any offsetting credits or programs to make up the difference.

      Well, I guess we shall see, but it ain't looking good.

    5. Also, I think JB would point out that no policy agenda is possible in a party that, increasingly, doesn't seem interested in policy at all. And that, of course, is absolutely deadly, particularly for the middle class. The poor have learned to survive in the absence of much policy, whereas the wealthy can buy what little they need. It is the middle class, and the working class, that withers and dies in the absense of policy, and the great withering has begun as the GOP has, in a body, decided it just isn't interested.

      Once again, it ain't looking good.

    6. Anastasios, as always, you could be right and I wrong. I think the most frightening thing about your argument is that the little people are easily mollified with ideological soma; my theory relies on little people fighting back, and its not clear how much those on either side would.

      On the left, the clearest evidence comes from the rivalry between labor and globalization, which has become akin to the rivalry between a fly and a speeding windshield. Get the conservative guy in that conversation, and he'll try to interject that unions don't well represent workers anyway - but who cares what the conservative thinks? Its how gauche unions have become to liberals that is of concern.

      On the right, there is the overwhelming weirdness of the (allegedly) capitalist career of partisan champion Mitt Romney. I don't know if anyone ever actively made the case that Romney's fortune came from other than exploiting inefficiencies in the economy, building nothing while enriching himself at the expense of the little guy. No one made that case cause no one needed to, as no one cared.

      You're right. Shoot. On a brighter note, the question is, after all, moot - pessimism notwithstanding - so I'm gonna pretend you're wrong, whistle a little and delusionally enjoy the rest of my day as if this never happened.

  4. Sigh, I just don't know, CSH. I was having a conversation with a friend of mine recently, a great Anglophile who was partially educated at Oxford. She is a great admirer of the British parliamentary democracy, and even more of the British party system. The reason it is, in her view, superior to ours is that it doesn't really represent ideology or culture or race as much as social classes, that is the Tories represent everyone from the middle-middle up and Labour everyone the from middle-middle down. That has the virtue, in her view, on enstantiating the class structure in the political system, thus ensuring that everyone's interests are represented. Of course, one reason she admires the Brits is that she feels they are more honest in freely admitting that classes exist and being willing to organize political structures around them, whereas by pretending, as we Americans do, that they do not, we render ourselves helpless to combat their effects.

    Maybe what we should hope for is that, as social issues fade with the changing of generations, a similar alignment will take hold in American politics. I very much fear, however, that there are a web of interlocked factors that will work to prevent that, namely the poisonous effects of racial resentment, the cultural peculiarities of the American South, the rise of media spheres, the rise of a conservative marketplace that no longer particularly rewards winning elections, and a general cultural aversion to admitting some basic truths, to wit: there IS an upper class, you are NOT in it, you are NOT going to BE in it, your children are NOT going to BE in it, and no, they DO NOT care about you or your children, thank you very much.

    1. Its funny, these matters can easily cause one to fall into a swamp of dismality, as projecting forth from the status quo pretty obviously doesn't hold a lot of promise.

      OTOH, as we've discussed a few times, seismic shifts always seem so clear in hindsight, even though we imagined them impossible right up until five minutes before they occur. The clues, we say, were always there, how could we not have seen them?

      What are the clues we are currently missing? Let us imagine, against all hope, that the little people really do reassert their interests in America/the developed west. On what will we look back?

      Exhibit A may be the Romney 2012 candidacy. Remember, we will laugh, how people thought the Machine hated him because he was a RINO, or perhaps a Mormon? How could we have missed the fact that the Machine was cracking, and the issue was Romney's status as the all-time most contemptible political member of the soon-to-be-discredited rentier class?

      Seems impossible, right? Until it happens, then it 'seemed' inevitable, and how did we not see it?

      That's what makes this all interesting, it seems to me.

    2. True, one never knows what the future will bring: or as a character in a novel I once read said, "If you meet an oracle, kill him before he can speak! The past is painful enough without having your future inflicted on you!"

      Having said that, I see three possible ways out of this:

      1) We muddle along and manage to keep the GOP out of power for another twenty years. They manage to moderate, whether through demographic change, desperation, or some unforeseen development that upsets the chessboard. In the meantime sheer luck keeps the country out of the ditch.

      2) Christie or some other GOP leader wins the Presidency, wrests control of the party from the worst elements, and puts the GOP on a better path through governing successfully and wisely.
      In essence, this GOP leader reverses the Republicans' cycle of bad luck with their winners.

      3) An unreformed GOP comes to power and causes catastrophe, but falls short of causing irreparable harm. In the ensuing meltdown, positive reform occurs.

      Maybe .... but frankly I don't think any of these is likely. Unfortunately, I think the greatest likelihood is that an unreformed GOP comes to power and causes enough damage both to themselves and to the country that it will take a generation to repair, meanwhile the resulting fallout is so acrimonious that the GOP becomes paralyzed and the Democrats become radicalized and embittered, particularly if the pain falls heavily on demographic groups that are gaining strength.

    3. What's also interesting here: not only is the destination only obvious in hindsight, but so too is the route. (Second gratuitous Scott Monje shout-out of the day): this is perhaps illustrated by Gorbachev, and his Glasnost, and the great liberation it unleashed, if only he, you know, meant to do that.

      For our discussion - first, there are probably not many (save random anonymous ranting idiots like yours truly) concerned about the lack of opportunity for marginalized conservative sympathizers. Though the marginalized have no dedicated constituency, the Paulistas are almost fellow travelers, with the influence of the Paulistas on the party probably helping the marginalized across the board.

      So take your Christie example. He's gonna have to kiss Rand Paul's ring before Nov 2016, no? In the process of making nice with the Paulista kingmakers, will he necessarily unleash forces that also benefit the little guy?

      Could be, you know? I think that's the great takeaway from Scott's Gorbachev example: when these types of things are rattling around out there in society, seemingly unrelated forces can set them off.

      The marginalization of the conservative middle class is rattling around out there, of that at least there can be little doubt.

  5. I think that Walsh was correct that Nader doesn't want to dirty his hands with the job of party building. Unfortunately, I think this is typical of a lot of people on the left. They refuse to accept the fact that politics and organizing his hard work and that it does involve parties. It's certainly possible that a 3rd or 4th party could be built in this country. But getting that party to win the presidency is not going to happen without all of the local work it takes to build a party.

    I wish I knew how it was that Democrats and liberals and progressives decided that winning the presidency is the only really important thing to do to effect policy along with rallies and marches. It boggles the mind how many liberals sit out local elections when they could easily find local standard-bearers for their point of view if they would just bump up their turnout numbers by 5%.

    Having vocal, local leaders representing a specific point-of-view is how you change conversations. It changes the dynamics of everything in politics.

    It helps build coalitions for larger office-holders and it helps represent the actual positive outcomes of a particular point-of-view.

    You won't get good congresspeople and judges without building a bench (so to speak). You build a bench by electing people to offices all over the place. And it takes fewer votes. The president can only do so much and he can't do much of anything if there isn't a political infrastructure supporting him or her.

    The president is as much a reflection of the rest of the political system as anything. If you want a different type of president, build up the rest of the system to your liking. It takes time and hard work, but it's really the only way.

    1. Sigh. You have put your finger on something very important, phat, and now I am going to say something that is going to make people very angry. One of the wisest political observations I've ever come across is from science fiction author Frank Herbert, who in one of his novels observed "Scratch a conservative and find someone who prefers an imaginary past to a real present. Scratch a liberal and find an aristocrat."

      There is an element of aristocracy to the left. Many people are attracted to the left as much for aesthetic reasons as intellectual or economic ones, and this is especially true of middle and upper class types. These are the types who are attracted to Europe and Japan because the subconsciously resonate with the aristocratic aspects still present in those cultures, and who are repelled by an American culture they see as a never-ending bachanalia of bullies, thugs, and ignoramuses. I was amused when, a couple of years ago, Bill Galston over at the New Republic accused liberals of "loving another country's dream more than the American dream." I was amused because many on the left would have only blinked and said, "well, obviously, what's your point?"

      All of which is to say that people on the American left, particularly those that remain now that the labor unions are largely defunct, see the day-to-day work of politics as, well, so very, very gauche and tiresome. The idea is that in a civilized society this idiocy would not be necessary to start with, not least because truly intelligent cultures don't have people like the Republicans. Now, I would say that is a complete misunderstanding of how European societies and political systems actually operate, and what goes into building and maintaining the progressive structures they desire and admire [less academic union, more labor union, less persuasion, more threats, less peaceful coexistance, more give-us-what-we-want-or-there-will-be-consequences, less moral exhortation, more I-don't-care-what's-right-I-want-money-for-my-people]. JB would probably say that they, and American moderates, have a severe case of the Goo-Goos, with all its problems. Although I am more sympathetic to good government than JB, and considerably less tolerant of hypocrisy, in this particular connection I think he is probably right.

    2. I wouldn't really go along with your theory as to why all this happened. Although, I suppose there's some agreement.

      I pin it on a cultural attachment to revolutionary change on the left that got mainstreamed in the 60s (at least among the liberal set). I think it's a misunderstanding of revolution, in general, and even specifically Marxism. Not that I think a properly understood Marxist revolution is a good idea, but still...

      I think, also, there has been such a demonization of public service and government in this country over the past, oh, 40 years that it's become perceived as morally suspect. I'm not talking about BIG government. I'm talking about government itself.

      There's also been a cultural shift among politicians, too, which exacerbates the disconnect, which helps justify the suspicion of government. Of course, this holds true on the right, as well, but, well, the right are generally older and wealthier so they have something more tangible at stake in local elections.

      Just try and get a college student to vote for city council. I suspect they could run cities where there are major universities. As it is, the University Foundations tend to run them. I don't really see those two constituencies having much of the same concerns beyond football.

      None of these thoughts are particularly original, I suspect. But I couldn't quote a source.

    3. And, one other thing. Yes, getting college students to vote is like pulling teeth. But if you really want to get a bunch of left leaning college students together, have rally (even that can be difficult these days).

  6. Kinky Friedman - and you even live in Texas where he ran for governor.

  7. Greg ("Our Love's in Jeopardy") Kihn writes mystery novels these days. As does Rupert ("The Pina Colada Song") Holmes--not that he can really be called a rock star, but he did write "Timothy," the first top 40 song about cannibalism, and that counts for something.


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