From the category archives:

US Politics

January 6

by Henry Farrell on January 8, 2021

Elizabeth Saunders and I have a piece in the Washington Post. Behind a paywall, but the nub of the argument below the fold. [click to continue…]

Election Day in the US

by Harry on November 3, 2020

In 2016 I was blithely confident that Clinton would win right up till about the last 3 or 4 days. It wasn’t exactly because I believed the polls: I just couldn’t really believe that swing voters would vote for someone as manifestly nasty and ill-suited to office as Trump. Previous Presidents during my time in the States were not manifestly nasty, and whereas I assume that Nixon was, he was also obviously capable of doing the job, and anyway those were different times. I understood perfectly well, because Nate Silver kept insisting on it, that statistically there was a non-trivial chance that Trump would win. But I didn’t believe that enough of my new compatriots were either reckless or vicious enough to make him President.

Then, in the final few days, I became uneasy. (I think this unease informs the post that I made on election eve, which I thought was lighthearted and optimistic, but which my daughter interpreted as a prediction that Trump would win). Sure, there was the intervention by a major government agency attempting to influence the outcome. But what made me feel worse were i) noticing that my Republican, but previously never-Trumpish, relatives seemed to have become Stepford Wives/Husbands and ii) observing the complete lack of energy that students on campus seemed to have around the election. On the day itself, from the moment I walked to my office, I just felt dread.

Last week a 22-year-old told me that her best friend has thanked her to making her vote in 2016. Her friend had still not voted by 30 minutes before the polls closed, and K told her she had to go, that it would only take a minute, and that an election isn’t over till its over. Her friend says that, given that Trump won Wisconsin, she would never have forgiven herself if she hadn’t voted against him in her first election.

This time around? Well the previously never-Trumpish relatives are still in Stepford. And while I spend most of most working days on campus, its a very lonely place — I never see colleagues, and the students are sparse. Even so the early polling stations that were up over the past couple of weeks were full of students voting whenever I passed (often at not-at-all peak times). I predict that on my campus the student vote will be very high indeed. My instagram feed is packed with students and former students urging their friends and family to vote, telling them exactly how to do it, and for whom to vote. Even the young Sanders enthusiasts whose friends were anxious that they would not vote for Biden have fallen into line. Whereas in 2016 Nate Silver was constantly emphasizing how likely a Trump win was despite the polls and his own model’s projection; in the last few weeks he has constantly been emphasizing how unlikely a Trump win is despite the polls and his own model’s projection.

I hope you all have a plan. Good luck, everyone.

The Supreme Court and Normcore

by Henry Farrell on September 19, 2020

After Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, we are going to see more debate over the norms on judicial nominations and whether they should be observed. The so-called “McConnell rule” – that the Senate should block Supreme Court nominations in the last year of their term to allow the people their say – is giving way to an equally fanciful McConnell exception stipulating that the rule only applies when Senate and President belong to different parties. So the question then emerges of how the Democrats should respond, if McConnell and Trump manage to get a Supreme Court nomination through, perhaps in the Senate’s lame duck session. Should they accept this or should they push back, perhaps through adding another two seats to the Court, something which is allowed under the Constitution, but that pushes back against long standing norms? [click to continue…]

Choose your own 538 adventure

by John Q on September 6, 2020

Like lots of others, I’m anxiously watching forecasts of the US election outcome. But it’s hard to figure out what’s going on, with Biden way ahead in the polls, behind in the betting markets and rated a 70 per cent chance by the model at 538.com. Inspired by this post from Andrew Gelman, who is working on the Economist model (Biden currently a bit over 80 per cent), and an informative tweet from Nate Silver, I’ve managed to improve my own understanding a bit. At least I think so.

Silver’s tweet confirms that the Electoral College system gives Trump a significant advantage relative to an election by popular vote. He syas
Chance of a Biden Electoral college win if he wins the popular vote by X points:

0-1 points: just 6%!
1-2 points: 22%
2-3 points: 46%
3-4 points: 74%
4-5 points: 89%
5-6 points: 98%
6-7 points: 99%

With that information, it’s easy enough to fit a normal distribution to the margin, and get an estimate probability of winning. By fiddling with the numbers, it’s easy to replicate the 538 probability estimate and also to get a probability distribution looking fairly similar to those displayed on te site. My best estimate is N(5,4), that is, the mean value for the margin is 5 points and the standard deviation is 4. The mean value is consistent with the description of the state level estimates on the 538 site, which (very roughly speaking) take the existing polls (which currently have Biden ahead by 7.4 nationally) and then give Trump 1 point for an incumbency advantage (reducing the margin by 2 points).

Looking at the Economist model (which doesn’t necessarily agree with 538 on the exact distribution of the Electoral College advantage) it fits pretty well with N(6,3)
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On an objection to the idea of “white privilege”

by Chris Bertram on August 27, 2020

The term “white privilege” has been getting a lot of play and a lot of pushback recently, for example, from Kenan Malik in this piece and there are some parallels in the writing of people like Adolph Reed who want to stress class-based solidarity over race. Often it isn’t clear what the basic objection from “class” leftists to the concept of “white privilege” is. Sometimes the objection seems to be a factual one: that no such thing exists or that insofar as there is something, then it is completely captured by claims about racism, so that the term “white privilege” is redundant. Alternatively, the objection is occasionally strategic or pragmatic: the fight for social justice requires an alliance that crosses racial and other identity boundaries and terms like “white privilege” sow division and make that struggle more difficult. These objections are, though, logically independent of one another: “white privilege” could be real, but invoking it could be damaging to the struggle; or it could be pragmatically useful for justice even if somewhat nebulous and explanatorily empty.

One particular type of argument is to deny that some white people enjoy privilege on the basis of noticing that some groups of white people suffer outcomes that are as bad or worse than non-white people on average or some non-white groups in particular. The claim is then that it is nonsensical to think of these white people as enjoying “white privilege”, or, indeed, any kind of privilege at all. But whatever the truth turns out to be about the explanatory usefulness of “white privilege”, I think these outcome-oriented assessments, sometimes based on slicing and dicing within racial or ethnic groups in ways that create artificial entities out of assemblages of demographic characteristics (white+rural+poor, for example), don’t ground a valid objection because they misconstrue what the privilege claim is about.
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Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson – Let Them Eat Tweets

by Henry Farrell on August 4, 2020

Below, a review essay on Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s most recent book, “Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality.” The essay tries to highlight and explain the political science arguments behind the book, and the kinds of political science research that would be needed to properly build out the agenda that the book implies. [click to continue…]

The Republican phase transition

by John Q on July 20, 2020

I’ve been reading the latest (excellent as usual) book from Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality . The opening paras read

This is not a book about Donald Trump. Instead it is about an immense shift that preceded Trump’s rise, has profoundly shaped his political party and its priorities, and poses a threat to our democracy that is certain to outlast his presidency. That shift is the rise of plutocracy – government of, by, and for the rich

This passage reflects the conflict between two propositions that I (and lots of others, I think) have been grappling with
(1) The rise of Donald Trump represents a radical transformation of the Republican party and American conservatism
(2) Everything Trump has done is a continuation of long-established Republican policy and practices.

Here at CT, Corey has argued for a long time that (2) is correct, and that conservatives or, more properly, reactionaries have always been about preserving hierarchy and power. I find Corey’s argument convincing, but not enough to persuade me that (1) is wrong. Hacker and Pierson also broadly endorse (2). But much of their book is a comparison of the trajectory of the Republican Party with that of the German nationalists in the dying days of the Weimar Republic. The fact that such a comparison, until recently regarded as an automatic disqualification from serious argument (Godwin’s law) now seems entirely plausible, suggests that something really has changed.

In trying to find a way to understand this, I was struck by the idea that the concept of a phase transition (such as from liquid to gas, or dissolved solid to crystal) in physics and chemistry might be a useful metaphor. I didn’t get past high-school in science, so I may well use the metaphor inaccurately – I’m sure commenters will feel free to set me straight.

To develop the metaphor, think of the Eisenhower-era Republican party as a complicated mixture of many dissolved ingredients, in which the dominant element was the business establishment, and the Trump era party, as described by Hacker and Pierson as a crystallised mass of plutocratic economics, racism and all-round craziness. The development over the 60 years between the two has consisted of keeping the mixture simmering, while adding more and more appeals to racial animus and magical thinking (supply-side economics, climate denial, the Iraq war and so on). In this process various elements of the original mix have boiled off or precipitated out and discarded as dregs. Stretching the metaphor a bit, I’m thinking of boiling off as the process by which various groups (Blacks and Northeastern liberal Republicans in C20, liberaltarians more recently) have left the Republican coalition in response to its racism and know-nothingism. The dregs that have precipitated out are ideas that were supposed to be important to Republicans (free trade, scientific truth, classical liberalism, moral character and so on) that turned out not to matter at all.

Trump’s arrival is the catalyst seed crystal that produces the phase change. The final product of the reaction emerges in its crystallised form, and the remaining elements of the mixture are discarded.

The Economic Consequences of the Pandemic

by John Q on July 4, 2020

That’s the title of a book I’ve agreed to write for Yale University Press (their editorial director) Seth Ditchik commissioned my previous two books, Zombie Economics and Economics in Two Lessons when he was at Princeton UP.

When we first discussed the book, I took the view that most of the writing would have to be done after November, since the outcome of the US presidential election would be crucial to developments in the US and globally. I’m now working on the assumptions that
(a) Biden will be the next president
(b) he will have a workable majority in Congress.
(c) mainstream Democrats recognise the need for radical change, and Biden will align with the mainstream position as he always has done

The first of these assumptions was problematic until recently, but seems safe enough to work on now. The third, I’ll leave for comments.
That leaves the question of a workable majority. Roughly speaking, I mean that the Dems have enough votes in the Senate to abolish or restrict the filibuster and pass the kind of program I’ll be advocating (allowing for a couple of defections, that would be 52 or more). Winning that many seats is still a stretch on current polling, but not out of reach.

The immediate question is that of how to get rid of the filibuster. Doing so pre-emptively would be problematic in all sorts of ways. Biden needs to start with the 2008 Obama playbook of reaching out across the aisle in the spirit of bipartisanship. But unlike in Obama’s case, once the proffered hand (or perhaps elbow bump) of friendship is slapped down, as it surely will be, Biden needs to point to his electoral mandate and whip up the necessary votes. Obama realised this, to some extent, in his second term, but by then he had a hostile Congress.

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Reappraisals (repost from 2011)

by John Q on June 30, 2020

  • As Princeton has just repudiated Woodrow Wilson, I thought I’d repost this from 2011, which seems relevant to a lot of current discussion*

As an Australian, I’m not much accustomed to think of political leaders in heroic terms[1], something that reflects the fact that nothing our political leaders do matters that much to anybody except us, and even then most of the decisions that really mattered have always been made elsewhere. So, I’m fascinated by the US activity of ranking presidents and other political leaders, and eager to try my hand.

What has brought this to mind is running across George Will’s campaign against Woodrow Wilson, who always seemed to be presented in hagiographic terms until relatively recently. Much as it goes against the grain to agree with Will on anything, he surely has the goods on Wilson: a consistent racist, who lied America into the Great War, and used Sedition acts and similar devices to suppress opposition. His positive record appears to consist of a variety of “Progressive” measures (in the early C20 sense of the term) many of which were inherited from Teddy Roosevelt, and few of which were particularly progressive from a left viewpoint[2], and his proposal for the League of Nations, where he comprehensively screwed up the domestic politics, leading the US to stay out of the League.

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Trumpism after Trump

by John Q on June 29, 2020

Predicting election outcomes is always risky (for example, the People’s Action Party could lose the current election in Singapore), but life involves taking some risks. So I’m going to predict that Trump is going to lose in November, and lose badly*. He is far behind in the polls, substantially further than in 2016. More relevantly perhaps, the resurgence of the pandemic in Arizona, Florida and Texas has ended any chance that the economy will be successfully reopened and the pandemic clearly under control by November, not to mention giving the citizens of those states very personal reasons to vote against him.

What will happen to Trumpism after Trump’s defeat, in the US and globally? Here are some very disorganised thoughts.

A big part of Trump’s appeal is that he is a winner, and a big part of Trumpist mythology comes from wins against the odds, as with Brexit and Johnson and, more periphally, with the re-election of the Morrison government in Australia (which had the good sense to dump most of its ideology for the duration of the crisis, but is now returning to its roots). With that gone, Trump’s support will be much weakened So, the stage will be set for a fight in which the hard neoliberals who controlled the party before Trump attempt to reassert themselves, breaking with Trump’s explicit racism while still trying to keep the Repubs white voting base behind them.

On the other hand, Trump has lots of supporters who will refuse to accept the reality of a defeat (not enough, I think, and particularly not enough in positions of power, for him to stop the election or overturn its result). And there are more competent Trumpists, in the mould of Viktor Orban, keen to push an ethnonationlist, racist and authoritarian policy program without Trump’s clownish demagoguery.

Internationally, a defeat for Trump probably won’t make much difference to the ethnonationalist voting base of the Trumpist right. That base has always been there, ready to turn out whenever some other group can be identified as the enemy. But it will, I think, have a significant effect on the right wing of the political class. Some of them will find themselves outside the bounds of legitimate discussion (this is already happening in a small way in Australia), while others will engage in some quick reinvention.

The big question is whether hard neoliberalism can recover. On the one hand, the financial sector still has huge economic power, which usually translates into political power. And the common-sense economics of the Swabian housewife still retains its grip on many. On the other hand, just about everything that is identified with hard neoliberalism (globalisation of trade and financial flows, the hypertrophic growth of the financial sector, trickle-down economics and more) is massively unpopular. That’s particularly true of those under 40, who never experienced the illusory prosperity of the 1990s, or the crises of the 1970s (minor by comparison with the last decade, but a massive shock to expectations conditioned by the postwar boom).

The best hope for the US right is that Biden and the Democrats are unable to fix the catastrophic mess they will inherit. More on this soon, perhaps.

  • I meant to have a footnote about the possibility of Trump rejecting the election outcome, but covered it with a parenthetical statement.

Mr Dooley, right again

by John Q on June 16, 2020

The decision of the US Supreme Court, that the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity was entirely predictable, based on the century old observation of the fictional Irish-American bartender Mr Dooley observed “The Soopreme Court follows the illiction returns.” As I said in 2018

At most, the court constitutes a veto point, able to block legislation that can be represented as violating constitutional protections. But most of the progressive agenda is clearly within the power of the legislature and executive. If the Democrats win the next few elections, the Roberts Court will be as much of a disappointment to its creators as the Warren Court in the 1960s

A decision restricting the interpretation of the Civil Rights Act would have had huge political costs for the Republican majority, without achieving any long term results. In the quite likely event that the Democrats gained control of both the Presidency and Congress sometime in the next few years, the decision would probably have prompted a new and even broader Civil Rights Act, as well as a potential trigger for expanding the court to create a Democratic majority. Even if this didn’t happen, the remaining state-level restrictions would have been chipped away in a series of losing campaigns for the right. From Roberts’ viewpoint the key goal has to be to keep bringing down decisions like Citizens United, which entrench Republican advantages. As for Gorsuch, the advantages are even clearer. His appointment is widely regarded as illegitimate, and a decision showing that “textualism” means “rightwing interpretations of the text” would have entrenched that. As it is, he can present himself as someone who, while conservative, is not a partisan hack.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out on the right. Roughly speaking, I’d expect the hard neoliberals to welcome the fact that this unwinnable fight is over. By contrast, the culture warriors who back Trump will be furious. Apparently, many are expecting a sweeping win in November, in which case they could amend the law.

The Politics of Disorder

by Kieran Healy on June 3, 2020

The wave of protest and unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by the police shows little sign of abating just yet. Unrest nationwide is, if anything, increasing as protesters are met with repression by the police. Civil unrest of this scope is unusual. The conjunction of mass protest and widespread disorder should be worrying to those in authority.

When property damage and theft happens as a side-effect of real mass protest, authorities in a democracy cannot baton, tear gas, or shoot their way to legitimacy. People want social order, but this isn’t like quelling a riot after a sports game. The key issue—as the Governor of Minnesota put it the other day—is that “there are more of them than us”. All the tactical gear in the world isn’t worth a damn, ultimately, if enough of the population ends up in open revolt against civil authority. There are just too many people.

That’s one reason the Army are on the scene already in DC. If the mobilization is large enough and it’s met with police repression and brutality—rather than some more accommodating strategy—then it will only take a few days before things seem to spin right out of control. The desire to present a “show of force” to protesters is understandable. It can be strategically sensible, too, insofar as it is aimed both at dealing with those in the streets and at securing the support of an approving audience who just want things to calm down. This calculus can change rapidly, however, as larger and larger numbers of people become directly and indirectly supportive of the protests.

Those actually running cities, and city police forces, are usually aware of this. Practical experience and decades of research makes it clear what’s at stake when “ordinary criminal behavior” is happening in the context of mass protest rather than as mere disorderly conduct. This is one of the reasons that authorities tend to blame “outside agitators” or “the media” or “protesters from out of state” as being the real cause of unrest. Protest organizers will do this too, often enough, blaming disorder on fringe groups or provocateurs who have illegitimately attached themselves to an otherwise peaceful protest. But if the bulk of a city’s population really is directly engaged in mass protest or indirectly supportive of it, and these protests are met with force by the authorities, then violent disorder will start to look less like pockets of disruption disapproved of by all and more like the loss of legitimacy.

In the United States, these pressures are exacerbated by racial stratification. The deep-seated racism of almost all aspects of U.S. life, and the residential racial segregation of many cities, makes it easier to mobilize the support of whites for the use of force in the name of social order. Even here, crises have been accommodated by efforts to redirect unrest towards an ordinary political process. The demand for social order without repression, after all, is not restricted to whites.

President Trump has no interest in routine politics. His instincts are authoritarian, his interest in the mechanics of governance is nil, and his attention span is minimal. He has been happy to cultivate the political support of the police and to egg on its paramilitary elements. Trump’s temperament intersects badly with long-term trends. The increasingly paramilitary culture (and equipment) of U.S. police forces has been noted by observers over the past twenty five years. The police were already aware that, thanks to astonishingly strong union contracts, weak internal oversight, and the doctrine of qualified immunity, individual officers would face no or minimal consequences for the use of excessive force, up to and including force that resulted in someone’s death.

Trump’s personal attitudes merely catalyzed what was already there. But it did so on both sides. Trump started out as a very unpopular leader and the scale of the economic crisis accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic has made everything much worse. Structurally, lockdown has put millions of people out of work. Contingently, the relatively small but highly visible wave of reopening protests threw the current unrest into sharp relief. In the former case, white protesters were allowed to vent their anger directly in the faces of police in ordinary uniform. Masked men with armalite rifles were permitted to walk onto the floor of state legislatures in the name of liberty. Such things are of course simply inconceivable in the context of black-led protest.

Thus were created the conditions for the fusion of mass protest and violent unrest. In the absence of mass mobilization for protest, imposing “Law and Order” by force is usually a politically successful tactic, at least in the short-run. The demand for order is the most basic demand of political life. But attempting to impose order by force when people are protesting in the streets en masse is much riskier, both for the leader wanting to “dominate” and for political institutions generally. A competent democratic leader may effectively de-escalate conflict and return it to the sphere of ordinary political struggle. Alternatively, a competent authoritarian may secure control of the police and military and get the backing of enough people to leave democracy behind. What you generally can’t do in a democracy, though, is “crush” or “dominate” real mass dissent purely by force without also causing political institutions to come crashing down around your head.

Self-respect, justice and black resistance

by Chris Bertram on June 3, 2020

One of the most important books I’ve read over the past couple of years is Tommie Shelby’s Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent and Reform. One of the passages that struck me most forcefully at the time is where he discusses the value of self-respect in the face of oppression. “Those with self-respect,” he writes, “live their lives in a way that conveys their conviction that they are proper objects of respect. For example, they resist the efforts of others to mistreat them and openly resent unfair treatment.” (98)

He has a brief, but powerful discussion of this value in and the need to resist if it is to be affirmed:

Oppression can erode a person’s sense of self-respect, causing one to doubt one’s claim to equal moral status. We can understand an attack on one’s self-respect as an action, policy, or practice that threatens to make one feel that one is morally inferior, that one does not deserve the same treatment as others. To maintain a healthy sense of self-respect under conditions of injustice, the oppressed may therefore fight back against their oppressors, demanding the justice they know they deserve, even when the available evidence suggests that justice is not on the horizon. They thereby affirm their moral worth and equal status.

…. Persons with a strong sense of self-respect sometimes refuse to co-operate with the demands of an unjust society. They stand up for themselves, are defiant in the fact of illegitimate authority, refuse to comply with unjust social requirements, protest maltreatment and humiliation, and so on, even when they know that such actions will not bring about justice or reduce theor suffering. Self-respect, then, can be a matter of living with a sense of moral pride despite unjust conditions. (99-100)

This seems absolutely right to me. Resistance may turn out to be futile in the sense that it brings about no lasting change or improvement in conditions, though we hope that it will. Often, as Shelby says a few lines later on, discretion is the better part of valour, both morally and prudentially. But sometimes people just have to stand up to affirm their status as human beings. And when they do the rest of us have to stand with them, and we deny their value, and demean our own if we turn our backs. This is why the many acts of resistance and protest by black Americans and those standing with them are so deeply moving and significant, however this ends.

The truth about the Badger State

by Harry on February 14, 2020

The Badger State does, in fact, have a state animal. It is the badger.[1] (We also have a state bird, a state tree, a state flower, and many other state things – in fact, a former student of mine is responsible for us having a state pastry which he says, with a mixture of bemusement and regret, was the legislative achievement for which he received the most plaudits from his constituents).

The badger is not a significant part of our local fauna. There’s one in the local zoo, called Buckingham (when one Buckingham dies, another takes its place, forever. Why Buckingham? I haven’t looked that one up, maybe there is some link with the Palace). And through googling I learned to my surprise that there are some in the wild, though nobody’s ever seen them (unlike possums, raccoons, chipmunks, opposums (whatever they are) and bloody squirrels that my UK visitors think are cute, but are in fact, like the other buggers I’ve mentioned, bloody pests). It is natural, but wrong, to assume that the Badger State is so-named after the badger. On the contrary, the badger got the honour of becoming our state animal because we were already the Badger State (and nobody had the imagination to think it would be funnier to have a different animal, like the chipmunk, or the cockroach, as its state animal). It was the Cornish miners who gave our state its nickname. When they came to the Western part of the state to mine tin, or lead, or something (they named town which they used as the base for mining “Mineral Point”, and if you go to Mineral Point it is still full of people with names straight out of a Daphne Du Maurier novel) were forced to live in holes dug into the hills which they recognized as being like badger setts. The nickname originates in the exploitation of workers, or the dignity of labour, depending on your preference.

You can see below (if I’ve managed to load the images correctly) the Wisconsin coat of arms (Yes, we have a coat of arms, as well as a bird, an animal, a flower, etc) followed by the Cornish coat of arms.

This was a public service announcement for the benefit of the President of the United States of America. And, to be fair, nearly everyone who lives in Wisconsin.

[1] Not, unfortunately, a cricket badger. That’s me.

Russia or California ?

by John Q on November 23, 2019

Would Republican voters rather live under a government like that of Russia, or one like that of California? This sounds a bit like those polling questions we used to laugh at, such as the 2009 finding that 14% of New Jersey Republicans thought Obama was Antichrist and 15% weren’t sure. But it actually reflects the choice Republican voters may well be facing.

Update: I was worried that I might be going over the top with this post. Immediately after putting it up, I found Bret Stephens saying much the same thing, (substituting Ukraine for Russia) in the New York Times. Not that I need Stephens’ endorsement, but obviously these thoughts are in the air. Also, I think Noah Smith mentioned the California scenario a while back, but I couldn’t find where. End update

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