November 2014


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 || No 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 || No 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 || No Comments »