Institutions of government are inherently political

For those of us clear-eyed (and arrogant) enough to consider ourselves judicial realists, it’s an incredible sight to see long-time New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse come around to what has long been self-evidently true about the Court and its members:

That’s not the case here. There was no urgency. There was no crisis of governance, not even a potential one. There is, rather, a politically manufactured argument over how to interpret several sections of the Affordable Care Act that admittedly fit awkwardly together in defining how the tax credits are supposed to work for people who buy their health insurance on the exchanges set up under the law.

Further, the case the court agreed to decide, King v. Burwell, doesn’t fit the normal criterion for Supreme Court review. There is no conflict among the federal appellate circuits. (Remember that just a month ago, the absence of a circuit conflict led the justices to decline to hear seven same-sex marriagecases?) In the King case, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, Va., unanimously upheld the government’s position that the tax subsidy is available to those who buy insurance on the federally run exchanges that are now in operation in 36 states.

There is simply no way to describe what the court did last Friday as a neutral act.

So this case is rich in almost every possible dimension. Its arrival on the Supreme Court’s docket is also profoundly depressing. In decades of court-watching, I have struggled — sometimes it has seemed against all odds — to maintain the belief that the Supreme Court really is a court and not just a collection of politicians in robes. This past week, I’ve found myself struggling against the impulse to say two words: I surrender.

The difference between Congress voting 50 ineffectual times to repeal Obamacare and the Supreme Court deciding the wording that, just two years ago, they unanimously affirmed as allowing federal subsidies doesn’t actually do that, is that the Court faces effectively no limits on its exercise of power.

Filed: We R in Control || 14:08, November 13 || View Comments


The Internet doesn’t do anything

By now everyone has seen the data: Young voters (18-29) made up 12% of the electorate in this year’s midterm elections, the same as 2010, and the same as 2006. If that proportion had been closer to what it was in 2012 (19%), assuming patterns of support among young voters didn’t change, lots of Democratic politicians would still have jobs.

2006, 2010, 2014. A bit of Facebook, lots of Facebook and decent Twitter, ubiquitous Facebook and significant Twitter and a ton of other things. Social network sites and content sharing platforms dominate the media diets of young adults, and have been home in recent years to a variety of high-profile progressive awareness campaigns, such as Kony 2012 and #YesAllWomen. Numerous studies have extolled the virtues of social media for “contribut[ing] to new models of citizenship now emerging in younger generations” (see also Bennett, Wells, & Freelon, 2011; Gil de Zúñiga, Bachmann, Hsu, & Brundidge, 2013). Unfortunately, this research skirts around a lot of practical participatory outcomes, most notably voting.

What does this tell us? Well, among other things, it tells us the Internet doesn’t do things on its own. The cultural political movements that have been enabled by the connectiveness of online communities have been terrific in many ways — certainly where American attitudes stand today regarding gender equality has been affected positively by discussion primarily occurring online — but they have also been sometimes counter to the interests of the largely progressive young generation (e.g., Gamergate, the Tea Party). Regardless, the young citizens who support access to birth control mostly did not vote. The young citizens who support establishing a living wage mostly did not vote. Relaxation or elimination of marijuana prohibition. Militarization of police. Non-dischargeability of student loan debt. Voter ID laws that specifically target students for disenfranchisement. No presidential race on the ballot? Not interested.

This is an observation of a problem I see with the framework of our thinking about the Internet and political participation, and I don’t have an answer to it at this point. I think parts of the answer lie in at least two places. First, Facebook’s experiments in social pressure about voting (and numerous other studies) point to one avenue that can’t be overlooked: awareness that elections are actually taking place, established long enough ahead of time to get registered and integrate “voter” into one’s self-concept. Many places have been inundated with ads for the last few months, but that’s not true everywhere, and it is true that many of these potential voters see relatively few TV ads anyway. One important data point could be the amount of news coverage devoted to midterm elections compared with presidential ones, but again, that doesn’t implicate much of this demographic.

The second part of the process may be a fundamental revisiting of what voting is for. This is an area in which the American left has long lagged behind the right. The conservative movement has long understood that it is both a social movement and an electoral one, and that the Republican Party is its primary electoral tool. Progressive and social justice organizations, on the other hand, from traditionally held skeptical views toward both the Democratic Party and electoral politics in general. This attitude seems like it may be resilient among young non-voters (or at least their enablers in the press), who believe that their votes won’t change anything. This reflects an upside-down view of what voting it is for. It is not to make change; it is to consolidate change make socially. If you make change in society to support equality and freedom, and then fail to vote for it every other election, you’ve failed to make the change happen.

Filed: We R in Control || 17:21, November 6 || View Comments


The god that failed

Politico Magazine asks today, “Why do voters believe lies?”:

If Gardner wins on Election Day, he certainly won’t be the only politician to get away with not being totally transparent, and it prompts the question: Why do voters fall for misinformation? A common refrain these days is that this is because there is a plethora of “low information” voters. If only those citizens knew more about politics, the argument goes, then the problem would be solved. But in fact, the problem is much more complex: It is often the people who are most interested and informed about politics that are most likely to adopt false beliefs.

Goal-post shifting from “believe lies” to “adopt false beliefs” aside, it’s a bit rich for Politico to run a piece blaming voter misinformation on motivated reasoning above all else. One reason that Cory Gardner’s lies (referred to even in this piece with “lies” in the headline as “equivocation”) haven’t hurt him with voters — particularly those less motivated, low-information voters — is that the press is unwilling to say that he’s lying about his previous and current support for personhood amendments. To the extent that the press is willing to challenge these statements, it’s in asides, shunted off to comically inept “fact-checking” columns, as if it’s not the job of regular reporters to check facts before printing them.

The LexisNexis archive contains 30 newspaper articles from Colorado sources in 2014 that mention “Gardner” and “personhood,” a number of which are editorials, and others of which mention personhood only in passing. In Iowa, Joni Ernst, another Senate candidate and personhood support who now claims that personhood amendments don’t mean what their text plainly says, was mentioned in only two state newspaper articles alongside personhood. That’s exactly two more than mentioned her along with “Agenda 21,” the UN development plan that she and other fringe conservatives believe is a secret plan to institute a one-world government. However, dozens mention her infamous “castrating hogs” ad from the primary campaign, a piece of political theater that sent tingles up the legs of many Washington courtiers.

A lot of misinformed people are going to vote today, and it won’t only be people whose misinformation is motivated by partisanship. A political press that allows lies to exist in a quantum symbiosis with truth bears plenty of the blame.

Filed: Watching the Detectives || 15:05, November 4 || View Comments


Mothership connection

So I kind of quit blogging, because it was taking me too much time to develop and refine the things I wanted to write about, which is both unproductive in general and not great blogging in practice in particular. But this week I was caught by an idea I could get figured out fairly quickly.

It stems from this New Republic post bemoaning the tendency to blame the government shutdown (and ideological extremism in general) on gerrymandering. This is basically correct. The idea behind your garden variety gerrymandering is to pack as many of your opponents voters into as few districts as you can, giving them a few very safe seats and you the bulk of the seats, but with narrow margins. If you do it right, you wind up with something like Pennsylvania, which voted for Barack Obama in 2012, and also gave 13 of its 18 House seats to Republicans. But also if you do it right, you’re winning a bunch of 52-48 districts, which means you should be incentivized to run relatively moderate candidates. So it’s not a very attractive explanation for systemic polarization or individual extremism.

But what is? Well one clear one is the willingness of far-right conservatives to mount primary challenges against Republican incumbents. This is an asymmetric strategy, as liberals are far less able or willing to mount such campaigns against incumbent Democrats. Primaries are low turnout elections, and the strongly ideological are the most likely voters. That means that Republican challengers come from the right, and challenged incumbents must move right to meet them. In theory, this should make the winner of the primary (whether the incumbent or the challenger) more vulnerable in the general election, because they’ve moved away from the median voter, and the Democratic nominee can move to the center in response. And indeed, this is essentially the dynamic that we’ve seen with the awful Senate candidates the GOP has put up in the last two cycles — they are far enough to the right to win a primary contested strictly among ultra-conservatives, but the statewide electorate wants nothing to do with them.

OK, so how does the House differ? There are a few key factors here. First, Senate campaigns get much more attention from national media and the national parties than House campaigns do, on average. So when Todd Akin talks about “legitimate rape,” it becomes national news. When Kerry Bentivolio (now the Representative from Michigan’s 11th district) is called “mentally unbalanced” by his own brother, it doesn’t. Additionally, Senators don’t have districts, they have states, which experience less change than districts do based on either demographics or map changes (the latter of which never happen for states). At the district-level, voters are gradually self-segregating along political lines, creating safer districts without necessarily gerrying the mander. This has the potential to make party ID even more salient in these elections than it is for statewide and presidential elections.

Where this all points is in the direction of low-information primaries producing nominees who appeal to extremely partisan electorates, leading into general elections where party ID trumps nearness to the median voter. This is where the idea of “safe seats” shifts from incumbents to parties — these are districts in which voters are pulling the lever for the party without knowing or caring much about who the candidate is. Once they get to Washington, fealty to the movement and service to the party become the most important thing. What’s so incredible about this is that it might be as close as the US has ever come to installing a parliamentary system. The problem is that the rest of our system isn’t designed to handle a parliament — the Senate gets in the way, the President gets in the way, the 10th Amendment gets in the way, etc. Our House has to push as hard as it can to get through all those veto points, and as long as its relatively undisciplined among its parties, that’s fine. A House that is discretely divided is going to have a tendency to break our system, and that tendency isn’t going to go away when the present crisis ends.

Filed: We R in Control || 20:02, October 5 || View Comments


Power of communication tools resides in how we communicate with them

This piece was written for Gateway Journalism Review and is cross-posted from the GJR site.

“You think you could tell a rapist to stop doing what he’s doing? Do you, really? And he’s going to listen to an ad campaign to stop?” At the end of a heated exchange over guns and personal safety for women on his Fox News program, Sean Hannity asked that of guest Zerlina Maxwell. During the segment, Maxwell suggested that the best way to stop rape was to teach young men not to rape, rather than to arm all women.

Hannity’s statement reveals a telling blind spot. He inhabits a world in which there is no rape culture, only rapists, who are criminals. Criminals cannot be reasoned with or taught not to commit crimes; thus, the only way to stop them is by force, during their commission of their crimes. The response to the segment belies Hannity’s view, however. For her trouble, Maxwell was the target of numerous racially and sexually abusive messages on Twitter, many of which centered on her being raped.

The inability of the media and political figures to see or understand rape that isn’t what Whoopi Goldberg infamously called “rape rape” – that is, a violent, forcible sexual assault by a stranger in a dark alley – is nothing new. On March 17, it reached perhaps a new low, as CNN aired a segment lamenting the “promising lives” of two Steubenville, OH, teens convicted in juvenile court of raping an unconscious girl at a party. Anchor Candy Crowley and two correspondents, Poppy Harlow and Paul Callan, spoke at length about the terrible effects of the guilty verdicts for the two rapists, whose “lives are destroyed,” according to Callan. The report focused on their football accomplishments and good academic standing before their trial; conspicuously absent was any discussion of their victim, or any suggestion that the best way to avoid your life being destroyed by a rape conviction is not to rape anybody.

One reason why CNN so badly interpreted this case may be that, like so many real rape cases, it didn’t fit the narrow definition of the hypothetical rape rape scenario. These two young men were not the rapists that exist in Sean Hannity’s mind, prowling the streets for unprotected victims to abduct and assault. Rather, they were two young men who had no concept of consent because no one had ever taught it to them. As David Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports wrote: “Throughout this trial, the two defendants and a parade of friends who wound up mostly testifying against the defendants, expressed little understanding of rape – let alone common decency or respect for women. Despite the conviction, the defendants likely don’t view themselves as rapists, at least not the classic sense of a man hiding in the shadows.” They grew up in a rape culture that privileges “good” men – successful athletes, good students – and denigrates “bad” women – those who express their sexuality, or drink. In rape culture, a rape conviction and a ruined life is not the just outcome of your own criminal behavior, it is a tragedy that happens to you against your will.

It is particularly disturbing that CNN would produce this kind of reporting. The role of Fox News and its personalities in our political and social discourse is no secret – Hannity’s segment is of a piece with past Fox material on guns and crime. But according to a 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, Fox was the second-least believable national news organization. CNN was the most believable cable news channel, suggesting that the reliance on opinion programming by Fox and MSNBC – confirmed by the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s 2013 State of the News Media report – has left CNN as the cable news viewer’s go-to source for straight news. For CNN to suggest that the conviction, rather than the commission, is tragic is a stunning reversal of this story, and does a tremendous injustice to rape victims everywhere.

Not surprisingly, the rape culture that underlies concern for the rapists also prompted additional abuse for their victim. On the day the verdicts were announced, two teenage girls were arrested for posting death threats against the victim on Facebook and Twitter. Social media also played a role in the original crime, as pictures and video taken by onlooking partygoers were posted online. Fox News, MSNBC and CNN all aired the name of the victim on March 18, potentially enabling a new wave of abuse. But if there is a silver lining to this episode, it is in the quick and sustained response to CNN and everyone else sustaining the rape culture’s infrastructure. Just two days after CNN’s initial report, a petition demanding an apology on Change.org has more than 189,000 signatories. Critical responses to CNN could be found from everyday Twitter users to The Huffington Post to the Poynter Institute. Social media provided a platform both to quickly expose CNN’s coverage, and to allow a broad coalition of reform-minded voices to come together and be heard, perhaps across interpersonal relationships that may never have supported an anti-rape discourse without this context. It is another reminder that the power of our communication tools lies primarily in how we communicate with them.

Filed: Watching the Detectives || 8:55, March 22 || View Comments


It’s so hard to say goodbye to yesterday

Nothing much to add to this, but half of Republicans believe that ACORN, an organization that no longer exists, stole the election for Barack Obama:

49% of GOP voters nationally say they think that ACORN stole the election for President Obama. We found that 52% of Republicans thought that ACORN stole the 2008 election for Obama, so this is a modest decline, but perhaps smaller than might have been expected given that ACORN doesn’t exist anymore.

The crosstabs show a slightly larger percentage of “very conservative” respondents believing ACORN stole the election (53%), and I wonder if this is the sort of question where ideology trumps partisanship, even though it’s typically the other way around. Republican leaders are going to have a politically tough time talking about ACORN in specific for obvious reasons (e.g., it doesn’t exist anymore), but the ideological leaders of very conservative voters may not be restrained by such “reality-based” concerns.

There’s also some very interesting fake knowledge stuff from the same poll:

The 39% of Americans with an opinion about Bowles/Simpson is only slightly higher than the 25% with one about Panetta/Burns, a mythical Clinton Chief of Staff/former western Republican Senator combo we conceived of to test how many people would say they had an opinion even about something that doesn’t exist.

Bowles/Simpson does have bipartisan support from the small swath of Americans with an opinion about it. Republicans support it 26/18, Democrats favor it 21/14, and independents are for it by a 24/18 margin. Panetta/Burns doesn’t fare as well with 8% support and 17% opposition.

I’ve been curious about the assertion of fake knowledge for quite a while (I conducted a study way back when that found people claiming more knowledge about a fake race riot story than the real Canadian elections), and I wonder if there isn’t a connection there to the belief gap mechanism.

Filed: Science Is Real || 9:36, December 13 || View Comments


Midwest aftermath

This fight is everywhere. Photo by John Rummel.

The levers of power are inherently political, Michigan edition:

The state House of Representatives voted 58-51 today to pass a right-to-work bill for public employees, and 58-52 on a bill for private sector workers.

Both right-to-work bills have already passed the Senate. All that is needed now is Gov. Rick Snyder’s signature and Michigan becomes the 24th right-to-work state.

In a parliamentary manuever, the House Republicans asked for a reconsideration of the bill to keep Democrats from asking for the same thing, which would have delayed final passage until Wednesday. Technically, the Republicans could remove that request later today and the bills will automatically head to Snyder.

It almost goes without saying that the Michigan GOP didn’t campaign on this in 2012, and that Snyder even testified earlier this year before the U.S. Congress that right-to-work wasn’t right for Michigan. But much the way traditional norms of government have been violated up and down the ladder of power over the past couple decades, so it is. The disparate protest movements that rose up in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere in 2011 failed to congeal into something broader, and that’s left Michigan vulnerable. It’s left state employees in Illinois to watch their pensions be stolen. And wherever else it’s possible, it will happen there, too.

Rep. Brandon Dillon — inexplicably elected as a Democrat from Grand Rapids — railed against this bill, saying that it’s only being shoved through now because the votes won’t be there in the 2013 session. Maybe that’s true, but it elides the point a little bit. It’s being shoved through now because this is the period of least accountable power. It’s why George W. Bush tried to privatize Social Security immediately as his second term began, it’s why Scott Walker went after the unions only weeks after being sworn in, and it’s why there’s such demand for a bipartisan “Grand Bargain” to keep rich people’s taxes low and destroy entitlements.

President Obama has thrown his weight behind the unions (which he somewhat conspicuously didn’t do in Wisconsin), and that’s big, but it’s probably too late. It’s entirely possible that Michigan unions are simply screwed. Even if the momentum built this week is enough to drive Snyder from office in 2014, keep in mind that when Tom Barrett ran against Scott Walker in the Wisconsin recall, he never promised to repeal Walker’s unionbusting bill. In Michigan, there’s no guarantee that Snyder’s replacement (with the help of a Democratic legislature) would undo this. (And if you want close coverage of the Michigan protests, follow Eclectablog.)

Voters with a union member in their household voted 40% for Mitt Romney. In 2008, it was 39% for McCain. That’s about 7% of all voters casting their ballots in favor of the gun that’s pointed at their own feet. Typically I’m happy to blame voters for their own bad outcomes, but in this case I think it’s a tremendous failure of imagination on the part of the Democratic Party. Get half of those voters back and you win every election forever. This ought to be the mandate for the politically unshackled and, yes, largely unaccountable second Obama term: Look for the union label.

Filed: We R in Control || 15:00, December 11 || View Comments


Sources of information, salience and novelty, and belief reversion

In this year’s MAPOR panel, Ken Blake’s presentation looked at belief that Barack Obama was born outside the United States, and Doug Hindman talked a bit about right-wing denial of the September unemployment numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Both issues are good example cases for a phenomenon that we might call belief reversion.

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Filed: Super Special Questions || 19:51, November 23 || View Comments


Belief gaps are knowledge gaps moderated by group norms

At MAPOR on Friday, we had another terrific session dealing with the belief gap and extremes in partisanship — a direct follow-up to the belief gap session we had in 2011. We were fortunate enough to get the entire set of participants back together, and had a big audience and a good discussion at the end.

Closing out the panel, Doug Hindman presented a nice overview of how knowledge gaps and belief gaps differ, which is really a narrow set of fairly subtle characteristics. He began his presentation by noting that he’s come more and more to see belief gaps as a particular kind of knowledge gap. Specifically, these are instances where the “knowledge” deals with politically disputed information, and where partisan elites (Doug mentioned “elected officials,” but I think we need to be able to include people like, for example, Rush Limbaugh here) make claims both supporting or denying that knowledge. Consistent with Zaller’s work on elite cuing, we should (and do) see partisans — particularly stronger and more educated partisans — taking up the incorrect beliefs put forth by their partisan elites.

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Filed: Super Special Questions || 9:25, November 20 || View Comments


Effetes don’t fail me now

It’s never the same thing, but it’s always something. American presidential elections are horrible things, though I can’t say whether they’re any more or less horrible than other countries’. Ours are sinkholes of mendacity and gamesmanship, in which winning is measured by the players in skim and by the public in the desperate hope that things don’t get any worse. At best, the campaign provides a distraction from the fact that our government is designed to fail, the institutional version of Monty Burns’s million diseases all getting in one another’s way. A public mismatched with its responsibility will again send a divided government to rule a structure that even one party could never reliably handle, expecting the president to “reach out” to the other side, and for the parties to “come together,” as if these magic words will erase the serious and deep divisions between them on fundamental issues of policy, values, and beliefs. If we’re lucky, only one incompetent or corrupt local election official will screw up thousands of ballots, and the winners will be known before the morning after Election Day; if so, we’ll be ready to leap right into Decision 2016. The lessons we will have learned this year are that truth, on every level, is valueless in the gate-kept circle of Hell inhabited by the Gang of 500; that because money couldn’t buy the presidency or the Senate, it’s OK if it buys mayors and judges; and that everyone who uses science to correctly predict things is just getting lucky or at least gay. We’ll play out this psychodrama again in four years, because most of us have no choice.

And now, on to the predictions!

I made a friendly wager that Barack Obama would defeat Mitt Romney well before the Republican primaries began, and I see no reason to deviate from that prediction now. His electoral vote margin will be smaller than it was in 2008, losing six votes to post-census shuffling, and then losing Indiana (11 votes), Florida (29 votes), North Carolina (15 votes) and the 2nd district of Nebraska (1 vote). All the other states will hold steady, for an Obama win with 303 votes to Romney’s 235. Obama will also become the first president to be elected a second time with a lower share of the popular vote than he got the first time since Grover Cleveland returned to the White House in 1892 with slightly less than he’d won in 1884. A final tally of 51% for Obama and 48% for Romney (rounded) will also indirectly point to the incredible disappearance of Gary Johnson, who had been seen as having the potential to swing New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and maybe even Colorado. Total votes cast for president will be around 135 million.

Democrats will retain control of the Senate, flipping seats in Massachusetts and Maine (via Dem-caucusing independent Angus King), while Republicans take Nebraska and Montana. The push on Election Day will leave the Senate split 53 to 47. Democrats will gain five seats overall in the House of Representatives, but will be well short of a majority, leaving John Boehner with the Speaker’s gavel by a count of 237 to 198. I’d like to be wrong about that one, but I have a hard time seeing where 20 more seats are going to come from.

Effete liberals, commies, moochers and anti-colonialists, let’s get out there and make it happen.

Filed: We R in Control || 15:08, November 5 || View Comments