Sunday, July 31, 2011

"Just fix it"

Alyssa Milano, via Twitter:
Hey, Republicans AND Democrats. Liberals, moderates AND conservatives. All of you. Stop the bullshit and just fix it.
Here's why we can't "just fix it." There are different ways of fixing it. You could raise taxes. You could cut spending. If you want to raise taxes, you could do it on upper income Americans, or on lower income Americans, or some combination. If you want to cut spending, you could cut the military, social programs, or some combination. There is no one way to fix it. And it turns out that people who want to fix things a certain way tend to group together in parties and elect people to Congress who agree with them. So Congress is filled with people who feel very strongly about doing things a certain way, and others feel very strongly about doing it another way, and their careers depend on them making good on their commitments to the people who elected them. That makes it very hard to quickly reach an agreement. This is the essence of democratic representation. Dictators could fix things much more quickly, but there's no guarantee they'd do it better. Most likely, they'd do it worse.

I don't mean to pick on Alyssa Milano -- she's from my home town, after all -- but she's uttering a commonly held sentiment that needs, in my opinion, to be addressed.

A link and a nod

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Election 2012: Time to sweat the small stuff

John Sides looks at recent economic growth numbers and polling trends and concludes that "Barack Obama is on the cusp of becoming the underdog in the 2012 election." He's right, although I'll offer a few caveats. First of all, polling done more than a year before an election just doesn't have much predictive value, so I wouldn't place a whole lot of stock in that right now. Second, while the economic growth figures look really bad, Obama will, for the most part, be evaluated on the economic growth that occurs between now and the fall of 2012. That is, Obama will be held responsible for an economy that doesn't yet exist.

What will that economy look like? Well, the forecasts for growth aren't that great, and most of the forecasts we've had over the past few years have turned out to be too optimistic. And the outcome of the debt ceiling crisis will likely be at best neutral for economic growth and quite possibly negative.

All this means that the economy will probably not slip back into a recession in the next year, but economic growth will be anemic. That is, the economy may be slightly better than the one that Jimmy Carter faced during his reelection effort, but not by a whole lot. We could be looking at 1 or 2 percent annual growth.

What does this mean for Obama? Let's look at a scatterplot, shall we?
The horizontal axis above measures growth in real disposable income from the 3rd quarter of the year prior to the election to the 3rd quarter of the election year. (We're currently in the 3rd quarter of the year prior to an election.) For example, real disposable income grew by 1.8 percent prior to the 2004 election, in which George W. Bush received the narrowest reelection margin for a president in U.S. history. So it's possible for an incumbent to win during a time of mediocre economic growth, but the odds aren't great. Incumbents win 2/3rds of the time when they stand for reelection, but in the data shown above, of the six elections where RDI growth was below 2 percent, the incumbent party only won two of those. The record is 2-2 when a sitting president is up for reelection under those circumstances.

Loyal readers of this blog will note that I'm generally unimpressed with the ability of campaigns or candidate personality traits to affect election outcomes. It's not that they have no effect, just that that effect is usually paltry compared to the effects of the economy and wars. But if the economy leads us to predict a 50-50 shot for Obama next year, then smaller effects become all the more important. The ability of Obama's reelection campaign to communicate with potential voters like it did in 2008 could be pivotal, as could the identity of the Republican nominee.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Modern Republicans and the invented crisis

Jeanne Cummings and Mark Niquette wrote a decent piece for Bloomberg recently suggesting that the ultimate cause of the current debt ceiling crisis is the rapid rise in party loyalty in recent years. This is only partially right. Hyper-partisanship is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for this crisis.

To be sure, polarization has occurred among both parties, and both parties' Congressional leaders are willing to play serious hardball to get what they want. But only one party chose to impeach a president for lying about fellatio. Only one party proposed shutting down the government to force a president to agree with its agenda. And today, that same party has chosen to use the pretty routine task of raising the debt limit to pay for past commitments as a weapon to constrain future spending. This is simply how the modern Republican Party operates when Democrats control the White House: they invent crises. I do not say this to score partisan points -- it is simply an observation of recent political history.

Why do they choose such high-profile showdowns, especially given the outcomes of previous showdowns? After all, while the Clinton impeachment embarrassed the White House and possibly affected the 2000 election, it failed to remove Clinton from office, portrayed the GOP as extreme, and cost Speaker Gingrich his job. Similarly, the government shutdown of the mid-1990s is, among Republican officeholders, widely believed to have been a huge miscalculation that damaged their party's reputation and strengthened President Clinton's hand.

But the Republicans do not pursue such tactics to become loved. For one thing, you don't need to be loved to win an election, just hated slightly less than the other guy. For another, the GOP approach to governing is a logical consequence of how they whip up their activist base in order to win elections. If you tell people that the president is an illegitimate, immoral monster or that government spending is a mortal sin enough times, eventually you have to deliver on it or your base sees you as a fraud.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Turning "Republicans and Democrats into Americans"

Brendan Nyhan flagged this recent article by former Rep. Mickey Edwards (R-OK) in the Atlantic. The article's title, "How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans," is really obnoxious, suggesting that Republicans and Democrats are not already sufficiently American when they advocate for the things they care about. But I have no idea if Edwards actually came up with the title, and the rest of the post is pretty thoughtful, so I'm going to try to give it its due.

The piece has a clear insidery perspective; Edwards was clearly bothered by partisan divisiveness during his time in Congress and doesn't like what he's seen in the two decades since. While I am a longstanding defender of parties and partisanship, I am sympathetic to concerns raised by members of Congress about such divisiveness. No one likes divisiveness in the workplace. Members of Congress -- most of them, anyway -- put in long hours trying to advance issues they and their constituents feel are important, and it can't be fun to see people opposing you just because of the "D" or "R" that appears next to your name on the ballot or to have people questioning your motives all the time. So while I believe that parties are very useful for voters and for legislators, I certainly understand why an experienced congressman (particularly one who saw a pretty substantial rise in partisanship during his tenure) would want some sort of reform.

That said, I believe the reforms Edwards is pushing are pretty misguided. Here are his six reforms and some brief responses to them:

  • Blanket primaries - I've addressed this issue before. I don't think it helps anyone if Democrats can pick Republican nominees and vice versa or if the general election is between two candidates of the same party. But even if you like this idea, there's very little evidence to suggest that it makes much of a difference. Washington state has had a blanket primary for a while now but maintains a pretty polarized state legislature. The legislators California elected during its earlier experiment with the blanket primary were no more moderate than in other years. Maybe it will make a modest difference, but I wouldn't bet good money on it.
  • Nonpartisan redistricting - There's no real evidence that this makes a difference, either. State legislatures in nonpartisan redistricting states are no less polarized than those where the majority party in the legislature draws up the districts. Polarization has definitely been occurring over the past few decades, but the fact that both states and counties -- which have fixed borders -- are polarizing just as rapidly suggests that redistricting hasn't had much to do with that.
  • The remainder of Edwards' reforms are quite insidery and would really only affect members of Congress and their immediate staffs. They including allowing more open rules in the House, increasing the power of the ranking minority member on each committee, filling committee vacancies by lottery, and professionalizing committee staff. I don't have terribly strong feelings about these, but I would note that the first two, which basically enhance the power of the minority party, would serve to make the House somewhat more like the Senate. If I were a minority member in the House, I'd be all over that, but is the Senate really a model of efficiency or collegiality right now?
In sum, Edwards' reforms would likely have little effect on partisanship, and any effects they have would be felt almost exclusively by members of the House of Representatives. That doesn't make them bad ideas so much as ineffectual ones. 

What does make them bad ideas is that they seek to undermine political parties, the greatest tool we've ever devised for representation in a democracy. The parties, which Edwards dismisses as "private clubs," consist of people who are volunteering their time, labor, and money to advance issues and candidates they care about to improve the country in some way, at least from their perspective. All that activity, aggregated into two large national parties, creates a great deal of constraint on members of Congress, who understandably chafe under that yoke. But it's that yoke that creates accountability and ensures that the government behaves in a way that is at least somewhat consistent with what the American people demanded in the most recent election.

Brinksmanship and the debt ceiling

One point I wouldn't mind hearing more of from the media in their coverage of debt ceiling negotiations: It is very, very hard to know who is "winning" and who is "losing" at any given point during a negotiation. In fact, those terms really aren't very meaningful until we know what the final agreement is. For example, I've heard some Democrats complain that Obama is getting rolled or that he's not "winning the argument," but it's really not clear what that means. If 60% of the American people primarily blamed Bush for the size of the debt, would that mean that Democrats had won the argument? 70% 100% And whatever that percentage is, does it have any bearing on the outcome of the negotiations?

Similarly, I'm pretty sure that John Boehner didn't want to reveal or exacerbate splits between business leaders and Tea Party activists within the GOP when he decided to go the brinksmanship route on the debt ceiling increase. But there's a tendency to treat that as a loss for Republicans, even though we have no idea whether it will impact the final agreement.

"Go ahead, blow it back to God."
Most of what we have right now are nothing more than tea leaves, offering small bits of insight as to just how serious each side is and whether or not it has the votes to get what it wants. My personal impression of Boehner is that he's kind of like Indiana Jones pointing a bazooka at the Ark of the Covenant; he's serious, and he really doesn't want the other people to control the Ark, but he's not actually willing to blow it up. But Eric Cantor just might be, and even if he's not, he just might have enough people in the GOP caucus who don't see a downside to blowing it up and can't tell when their leaders are bluffing. That's a precarious situation for negotiations. But again, these are just impressions.

The key point here is that no one knows who is winning or losing this thing. Horse race descriptions, while useful in campaigns, just really don't apply here.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Internet will not save you

While I'm dumping all over Tom Friedman, I should probably mention another facet of Americans Elect that strikes me as problematic. Basically, what this organization is purporting to do is to create an on-line political convention. As Friedman explains:
First, anyone interested in becoming a delegate goes to the Americans Elect Web site and registers. As part of that process, you will be asked to fill in a questionnaire about your political priorities: education, foreign policy, the economy, etc. This enables Americans Elect to put you in contact with others who share your views so you can discuss them and organize together. Then you will be invited to draft a candidate or support one who has already been drafted and to contribute to the list of questions that anyone running on the Americans Elect platform will have to answer on the site.
Using the Internet to facilitate political dialogue and organization is hardly objectionable, but it's also hardly novel. This is exactly what people at NRO, Daily Kos, and other sites have been doing for years. If you're interested in politics and you have Internet access, chances are there's already a place for you out there. And if there isn't, the startup costs are extremely low. So it's not clear to me just what Americans Elect is bringing to the table.

This whole endeavor seems rather enamored of the idea that American Elect can change American politics by harnessing the power of the Internet. Or as the organization promises, "We’re using the Internet to give every single voter... the power to nominate a presidential ticket in 2012." Look, I love the Internet as much as anyone, but its transformative power in politics has been way overstated. Political activists use the Internet to fundraise, to contact voters, to spread information, and to debate issues. News flash: we were doing all those things before the Internet was invented. We may do those things differently -- sometimes more easily, sometimes more effectively, but not always -- but it's still the same basic tasks of politics. (Apple somewhat ironically drives this point home in a recent iPad ad.)

The Obama campaign really did make brilliant use of on-line social media in 2008, and just maybe it turned out some votes using these methods that would not have otherwise turned out. But does anyone think that McCain would have won if no one had ever invented the Internet?

The idea that a website is somehow going to reshape our national political system is kind of a joke. The idea that a website will be the great democratizer of American politics really flies in the face of everything we know about who participates in politics and who is on-line. If you think it's going to "give every single voter... the power to nominate a presidential ticket," just think about what percentage of voters are likely to participate in an on-line party convention next June to nominate a bipartisan ticket.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Here comes Friedman's radical center

Tom Friedman's latest column is such an easy target, I hesitate to comment on it. But I've heard from some folks who seem to be intrigued by the idea he's hawking, so I feel I must say something.

Basically, he's pushing an organization called Americans Elect, which, as near as I can tell, is something like Unity08 version 2.0. Actually, it's more like version 1.1 -- they really haven't upgraded the idea or the technology very much. The organization is promising an on-line convention that will end up nominating a coalition presidential ticket for 2012 that somehow gets on all 50 state ballots. Why?
The goal of Americans Elect is to take a presidential nominating process now monopolized by the Republican and Democratic parties, which are beholden to their special interests, and blow it wide open.
Okay, point conceded: the process that determines the Republican Party's nominee for president is totally monopolized by Republicans right now. And, yeah, Democrats control the process by which the Democratic nominee is selected. Perhaps Friedman can explain why it's a problem that a party would determine its own nominee.

Seriously, if you read through the column, there are about a hundred platitudes that can be easily torn down, but that's not what I wanted to write about. I wanted to comment specifically on Americans Elect CEO Elliot Ackerman's claim that
The questions, the priorities, the nominations and the rules will all come from the community, not from two entrenched parties.
This statement irks me both as a political scientist and as someone who has participated in party caucuses and conventions in an effort to select candidates for office. How exactly does a party go about nominating candidates and determining planks on a platform? It involves extensive, messy deliberation and coordination among political activists, major donors, some officeholders, party elders, interest group leaders, and others. In other words, it involves the community. That's what a party is. A party is not an alien presence imposing its will on the democratic process. Quite the contrary: a party emerges organically from the democratic process.

Are some moderates left out of these communities? Sure. They have a choice. They can form their own new party, although the track record of those isn't great. They can suck up their objections to the ideological extremists and work within one of the party communities, although that can be frustrating. Or they can stay at home. But they are not somehow more noble because they aren't part of one of the "entrenched parties."

The extremism of elected officials

Nate Silver has a nice post up in which he compares the ideological stances of current governors with those of the voters they represent. I don't know too much about the OnTheIssues website, which Silver uses to determine governors' moderation/extremism, but assuming they're unbiased with regards to party, the resulting analysis is quite interesting. Silver ends up producing the following scatterplot:
What this demonstrates is that Democratic governors are responsive to voters' ideology; the more conservative the state, the more conservative governors' stances. Conversely, Republican governors appear to be completely unresponsive. No matter how liberal or conservative their state, they are advocating a strict conservative doctrine on a broad range of issues.

This graph reminds me a great deal of one that I produced for my book, comparing the ideal points of California legislators with the partisanship of their districts:
There's an important distinction here, though: in the California scatterplot, it's the Democrats who appear to be totally unresponsive to district sentiment, while Republicans actually behave more moderately when they represent more moderate voters.

One of the things Hans Noel and I argued in a recent paper was that a majority party would tend to have elected officials that were more ideologically extreme relative to their voters than the minority party would. There is an incentive, we argued, for minorities to moderate in an effort to win back control, while majorities seek to push their advantages to achieve as many of their policy preferences as possible while they're in power. If this applies to governors, as well, that's pretty interesting. After all, governors aren't really part of a national legislative chamber, so sticking together doesn't really produce an obvious policy payoff.

There are a number of reasons why the current crop of Republican governors might be more extreme than their Democratic counterparts or than Republican governors in earlier years. 2010 really was an unusual election. But what the above graphs demonstrate pretty clearly is that while the parties may be equally extreme in the long run, this extremism varies significantly by party from year to year. Sometimes Democrats really are more liberal than Republicans are conservative. Right now, it looks like the Republicans are the more extreme party.


I can only assume that astronauts have one of the most effective lobbyists in history working for them. Otherwise, why would this be happening?
With the space shuttle now history, NASA's next great mission is so audacious, the agency's best minds are wrestling with how to pull it off: Send astronauts to an asteroid in less than 15 years.
Don't get me wrong -- asteroids are a fascinating area of study. They provide clues as to how the solar system formed, they may contain minerals we could use on Earth, one of them will probably try to kill us all in the not too distant future, etc. So yeah, it's very useful to study them. By all means, send probes, take samples, do what you have to do.

But what value is there in putting people on an asteroid? It just sounds like a very expensive, dangerous, and difficult mission with no obvious scientific payoff. Oh, except maybe this:
It is all a stepping stone to the dream of flying astronauts to Mars in the mid 2030s.
Sure, because landing on a rock with virtually zero gravity is great practice for landing on a planet with gravity.

Am I missing something?

Friday, July 22, 2011

Summer sausage

I've been traveling a bit and haven't been very good about blogging. I'm back home and hope to be back in the blogging saddle again soon. Meanwhile, here are a few things that have caught my eye:

  • Ezra Klein makes some great points about presidential power, or lack thereof. Also, if you're a bit fuzzy on the whole debt ceiling topic, this primer is quite helpful.
  • Jonathan Bernstein, John Sides, and others had an interesting dialogue recently about just who would get the blame next year if Republican recalcitrance on the debt ceiling ended up seriously harming the economy. For my money, I'd say that the president's party still owns the economy, no matter who is most directly responsible for helping or hurting it.
  • I'm a fan of Tim Groseclose's work, but I have a hard time buying his claim that if it weren't for media bias, McCain would have defeated Obama by 14 points.
  • A friend recently took me on a tour of Gov. Jerry Brown's office and introduced me to his impressive book collection.
  • Scott Lemieux has some important details about the McDonald's coffee lawsuit.
  • CNN claims that "some Dems" are now supporting Republican women but can't name more than one.
  • This is pretty much the most iconic Colorado sculpture ever. And I think my daughter wants this for her next birthday cake.
  • The Denver Post has a nice guide for climbing Colorado's 14ers. I hope to try one this summer.
  • Man, was "Cars 2" disappointing, especially coming from the one movie company that, at least until now, has refused to phone it in.
  • Still not sure what to make of Google+.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Why so few Revolutionary War films?

Alyssa Rosenberg and Erik Loomis want to know why there are so few films about the Revolutionary War. It's a good question. It may well be that when you get into the weeds, it's just hard for modern audience to relate to the story. Independence is a great rallying cry, but why would most individual colonists favor the cause, risking their lives in the process? Because of a friggin' tea tax? Drink coffee, dude. (I'm oversimplifying, I grant you.) And the details of the war, for the most part, just aren't that compelling. It was mostly a case of the Americans very cleverly retreating until the French bailed them out -- not really how Americans want to see themselves.

Then again, it's the movies. They can always embellish! Take the film "U-571," a pretty entertaining film about the Americans who took over a U-Boat during WWII and stole the Germans' Enigma code machine. Oh, it was the Brits who did that? Well, let them make a movie about it with Colin Firth and Emma Thompson. Meanwhile, USA! USA! You see my point. One needn't be a slave to history to make an entertaining historical film.

The problem with this argument is that that's exactly what Roland Emmerich did with "The Patriot." Say what you want about Emmerich's and Mel Gibson's films, but they're usually not boring. "The Patriot" kind of was. And they took real liberties to make it compelling. They gave Gibson's character a good background and a bunch of solid reasons to join the rebel cause. They made the Brits unusually evil -- Col. Tavington was a combination of Hitler, Palpatine, and Hannibal Lecter. He locked women and children in a church and burned it to the ground. If anyone actually committed any sort of act during the prosecution of the Revolutionary War, please let me know, but this struck me as a real stretch. Nonetheless, kind of a dull film.

Why? I think it really comes down to the military technology of the time. Stephen Colbert nicely demonstrated the challenges of the front-loading musket in his reenactment of Paul Revere's ride. Shooting, followed by 30 seconds of reloading, followed by shooting, is just a poor visual. Emmerich tried to make it cooler by doing it in slow motion, but that just made it take longer between shots. Daniel Day Lewis nicely overcame these limitations in "Last of the Mohicans" by grabbing lots of rifles. He shot a dude, grabbed the dude's loaded rifle, shot the next dude with it, and so on. But that approach doesn't work as well on a Revolutionary War battlefield. Sure, you could show lots of bayonetting, but that's actually pretty gross.

If people want to keep trying to make a decent Revolutionary War film, I'm happy to go see it, but I tend to think it won't be that watchable until some daring director throws machine guns or laser beams in there.

Can you make your friends' friends fat by gaining weight?

Dave Johns at Slate has written a rather good article about an important debate in the social sciences. The article starts by describing some of the cooler networks research of James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis, which examines the "contagion" of personal behavior through our social networks. Fowler and Christakis, for example, note that if you're overweight, your friends will tend to be overweight, as will their friends. Same thing if you're divorced; you will tend to have divorced friends, and those friends will tend to have divorced friends. Same thing if you vote. Or if you're happy. Or lonely. And so on. Now, it's one thing to note these correlations, but Fowler and Christakis go on to suggest causality, such that your decision to lose weight can affect your friends, your friends' friends, and other people you don't even know. It's a cool concept, and it was initially embraced by the media (James even went on Colbert), but now there's a blowback within academic and journalistic circles, which Johns details.

I don't wish to weigh in on the statistical debate -- those with far better qualifications than mine are doing that just fine. But I think it worth mentioning that this whole debate is dealing with a topic that is absolutely essential to social network research and to a lot of other areas in the social sciences. The topic is homophily, which is simply a way of saying that birds of a feather tend to flock together. It is an easy enough concept to grasp, but it's very, very difficult to deal with it in actual research.

Let's say that your decision to lose weight actually affects those around you. That's not too hard to believe; we can be inspired by people we know. So there's an effect. But how do we measure that effect separate from people's tendency to hang out with other people who are like them? That is, people who are likely to try to lose weight will tend to be friends with other people who have the same interest. That's not influence, it's homophily. How do we measure the influence on top of the homophily?

Similarly, Democrats tend to be friends with other Democrats. That's not because people are deeply political (for the most part, they're not), and it's not that Democrats are convincing their friends to become Democrats, although that may happen on the margins. It's just that if you're a Democrat, you're probably hanging out in places where Democrats tend to hang out. You probably live in a city rather than a suburb (which is where the Republicans are hanging out with other Republicans), you probably live in a walkable neighborhood and frequent the types of bars and restaurants that exist in such neighborhoods, you probably hold the kind of job that Democrats tend to hold, etc. You're not intentionally selecting a Democratic lifestyle, nor are you necessarily trying to turn your friends Democratic. You just pick the lifestyle you're comfortable with, and it turns out that most others who pick that lifestyle tend to share your political beliefs. Lo and behold, the population from which you pick your friends tends to be filled with Democrats.

If that's the case, then how do we measure social influence? It's really not easy. But it's probably the biggest question we're dealing with right now in networks studies.

"You help the soldier, you help the civilian. It is the same person."

Journalist Marc Herman, my far more courageous counterpart in high school, has just returned from a visit to Tunisia and western Libya, where he interviewed people traveling back and forth across the border about their activities in the war there. The first of his dispatches appears in the Atlantic and is pretty fascinating, attesting to the blurring of the soldier/civilian categories. It includes an interview with the owner of a supermarket in Tataoine, Tunisia,* who sells to both pro- and anti-Qaddafi forces. Others in the story are using refugee supplies to specifically aid anti-Qaddafi fighters. Are these people part of the war effort? Are they businesspeople? Humanitarians? As Marc's reporting suggests, these distinctions don't have a great deal of meaning on the ground there.

*I have learned from Marc that the scenes from "Star Wars" set on Tatooine were filmed near the real city of Tataoine, and George Lucas borrowed the name.

UPDATE: I also learn from Marc's Twitter feed that Kenny Rogers and The Onion are huge in Libya right now. If it weren't for all the tyranny, death, and heat, I'd be all over that place.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Party insiders and the invisible primary

For a truly great discussion about just who party insiders are and how they affect presidential nominations, look no further than Greg Marx's interview with Hans Noel (one of the co-authors of The Party Decides) in the Columbia Journalism Review. Hans explains the book's main arguments extremely well. The main point -- one that I've tried to make here on a few occasions, though not quite as eloquently as Hans -- is that the really important people at this stage of a nomination contest are neither the candidates nor the voters, but the party elites who are trying to figure out just what they want in a nominee and how to get that person. But, as Hans notes, it's easy to follow candidates and to poll voters, but it's tricky to identify party elites and track their activities. He gives an example of trying to understand how Republican insiders are feeling toward Mitt Romney:
The thing that I would emphasize is that the people he needs to please are not the voters in Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina. Ultimately he has to do that, but the path to doing that is to please important leaders on those issues in the party. So when he gave his speech at the University of Michigan awhile back, the response to that really mattered. And the response within the Republican Party wasn’t very good. I don’t know what the polling results would be about how ordinary voters responded, but what mattered was the National Review, which endorsed him in 2008, was not excited by his effort to explain his health care position.
Hans also offers what I consider some helpful advice to assignment editors about how to cover nomination politics:
One thing you could do is—and I don’t want to overstate the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire; they are important but they’re not the end-all and be-all—you could have someone be responsible for learning about what’s going on in Iowa. So they would go and talk to the various party leaders in Iowa, various activists, people who have been influential in earlier campaigns. You would cover Iowa, rather than covering Michele Bachmann in Iowa. It’s daunting to say, go and understand a whole state. It’s harder than it is to follow around a particular candidate. But that is the place where the questions need to be asked.
Really, go read the whole thing.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Deifying the Founders

Episode 2 of the "History of Rome" podcast -- which I can't recommend often enough -- concludes with a comparison of George Washington and Romulus, the fabled founder of Rome. Over 2,500 years after his death (assuming he ever actually lived), the author notes, Romulus has a mythic status and is the answer to all questions about the founding of Rome. He further speculates that George Washington may come to inhabit such status in the centuries to come, and that our descendants will learn that Washington was born of a cherry tree, as evidenced by his wooden teeth.

I find it entirely fitting to think about America's Founders in a critical and human light as a way to celebrate July 4th. (This is sort of an answer to Jon Bernstein's July 4th question about political heroes.) And I can find no better post along these lines today than the one written by Mark Byrnes in response to Michele Bachmann's recent claim that the Founders, including eight-year old John Quincy Adams, all worked tirelessly to end slavery. Byrnes notes, among other things, that the Founders held a wide array of views on many subjects, that some worked hard to end slavery because others were working hard to protect it, and that the Founders were skilled compromisers who, for the most part, prioritized statecraft over equality.

None of this is to disparage their work. Had they been less skilled at statecraft, July 4th of 2011 might be an ordinary workday in some very different nation or nations occupying the middle of North America. We might have Queen Elizabeth II on our $20 bills, like some other countries I could name. But even while we revere the Founders, it is silly to regard them as gods or simplistic cartoons. Their history is complex, and we do them no honor by treating it otherwise. As Byrnes concludes,
The Declaration, whose adoption we celebrate today, is not only a gift to future generations. It is a burden. "The Founders" did not give us all the answers. They showed us the important questions, and challenged us to work out the answers for ourselves.
 (h/t Matt Yglesias)

What makes a bill bipartisan?

Really important point from Ezra Klein:
A “bipartisan bill” isn’t a bill that includes ideas from both parties. It’s a bill that includes votes from both parties.
When the subject of health care reform comes up, I often hear liberals complain that Republicans are hypocrites because they were labeling as socialist a plan that was very similar to what Mitt Romney signed in Massachusetts and Bob Dole pushed for the country back in the 1990s. Yes, there's some truth to that, but we should note a few other points. For one, Romney was governor of a very liberal state back then, and what a Democratic Massachusetts legislature can pass and their Republican governor can sign is not the same thing as you'll get elsewhere. Also, Dole and other Republican leaders pushed an Obamacare-style reform when Bill Clinton was pushing his model of health reform knowing full well it wouldn't pass. They were trying to siphon off votes from Clinton's plan and make it look more extreme in comparison. (It worked.)

Another point to keep in mind is that parties are allowed to change their minds. What's the current Democratic stance on same sex marriage? That's not to so easy to answer, but it's definitely not the same stance it was just a decade ago.

Finally, back to Ezra's point: There's no objective determination of how partisan or bipartisan the content of legislation is. What seemed like a bipartisan idea in one year might be treated very differently the next year if it looks like it has a chance of becoming law and making one party look good at the expense of the other. Bipartisan is as bipartisan does.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Social networking media, cultural imperialism, and gender

Sociology grad student Sarah has an interesting post up at Facile Gestures that makes some important points about social networking media. One key point is about the coverage of the role that Facebook, Twitter, and other U.S.-generated media played in the Arab Spring and other social movements:
[T]there is a imperialist undertone to the notion that the uprisings could not have occurred without these social media platforms. By placing US-centric, English language platforms at the center of reportage on Middle Eastern unrest, we colonize the revolutions and claim them as victories of our own. Look at these tools of freedom we have created, we say, pointing towards our own techno-social accomplishments and feeling heroic that we provided such a space. This not only elides the fact that a significant proportion of political organizing outside the Western world happens outside of the services that we are most familiar with, but also diminishes our understanding of the relationship between online communication, political action, and information sharing outside the confines of those platforms we’ve deemed to be "important."
Exactly. While this is often done without malice, just offering us a way to understand foreign social movements in familiar terms, the result is to give us credit for something in which we played a very, very small role. (Given the larger role our country has played in supporting the targets of these revolutions, one can certainly understand our interest in feeling like we're on the side of the good guys.)

Sarah makes another interesting point with regards to gender:
We know that the feminist blogosphere runs a secondary parallel to the mainstream progressive blogosphere. Twitter — when not being used for celebrity gossip (an eminently female pursuit) — is the outlet for male dominated news outlets, mainstream or otherwise, to make their voices relevant. Facebook, though more personal and thus less likely to carry with it the gendering that comes with journalistic engagement, appears in the news as a gathering place for social movements gendered masculine by their leaders and tactics.
She contrasts these sites with LiveJournal, which is dominated by women. While LiveJournal is generally not listed among the sites facilitating political activity, it plays an important role in doing precisely that outside the United States.

I was thinking a lot about this topic during an impromptu "summit" of political scientist bloggers and their journalist counterparts at APSA last summer. It was hard not to notice that our group was overwhelmingly white, male, and young (defined as "≤ my current age"), and at least 50% Jewish. To be sure, this was hardly an unbiased sample of such bloggers, and we're drawn from a somewhat skewed population to begin with.

Nonetheless, women make up a substantial percentage of younger political scientists. Either a lot of these women are doing some political blogging in one form or another and we male bloggers just aren't aware of it, or they're declining to blog. I'm not sure if there's something particularly gendered about blogging in general. (I think a lot of us were computer nerds in high school, and that tends to draw a largely male population, as well, but that doesn't really answer the question.) I'm open to ideas on this.

(h/t John McMahon)