Monday, October 31, 2011

East End boys and Westen's pearls

Drew Westen is once again filling valuable column inches in the New York Times with cheap pop-psychological claims about parties and politicians. John Sides goes in for the quick kill, and Jon Bernstein helps mop up. I'm a bit late to the show, but I saw another claim in Westen's piece that really begged to be addressed.

Democrats... are too likely to view intellect as both necessary (which it is) and sufficient (which it is not) for high office. They have repeatedly presented the American people with candidates — Hubert H. Humphrey, Walter F. Mondale, Michael S. Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry — with more than enough gray matter to be the world’s chief executive but not enough of the other skills that matter to the American people. [...]
The ability to “read” the emotions of the electorate and to speak to those emotions in a compelling way do more for both electoral success and legislative success than I.Q. Similarly important is the ability to articulate a vision and a set of values, which is a far better predictor of voting behavior than positions on “the issues.”
This is something Republicans understand far better than Democrats, and something Ronald Reagan mastered.
This is classic post hoc reasoning that doesn't even belong in an undergraduate essay in an intro-level class, no less on the Sunday op/ed pages. The reasoning goes: Mondale ran, Mondale lost, therefore Mondale was lacking some important qualities [insert whatever qualities you like in people]. One major factor that is being ignored here, of course, is the economy. Mondale ran against a popular incumbent during an enormous economic boom. Are we to believe that Bill Clinton would have defeated Reagan in 1984?

Another point: Did Nixon "read the emotions of the electorate" in 1968? Did he "articulate a vision and a set of values"? Or did he just happen to run in a year when the incumbent party's candidate was suffering from his association with a slowing economy and a deeply unpopular war?

Yet another point: Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000! No, that certainly doesn't make him president, but nor does it demonstrate that the voters rejected him due to his purported inabilities to read emotions or articulate visions.

Still another point: Yes, Ronald Reagan possessed some excellent public speaking skills, but that didn't help him when the economy was floundering during his first term. His approval ratings dropped into the 30s in 1983. Maybe in all the economic turmoil, he briefly forgot how to read emotions and articulate visions.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

That's no moon... it's a pumpkin

My first attempt at a Death Star Jack-o-Lantern.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Getting money out of politics

A friend posted a Facebook link this morning to a group called Get Money Out, which wants to, quite simply, get all private money out of political campaigns. Now, I would normally quickly dismiss such a group, but this seems like a good opportunity to discuss campaign finance reform and some of the arguments used in its favor.

Campaign finance reform strikes me as a solution in constant search for a problem. It's actually quite hard to identify specific and egregious incidents of bribery that would have been prevented by removing private funding from campaigns. Yes, there are occasional abuses -- Rod Blagojevich selling an Illinois senate seat, Tom DeLay shaking down lobbying firms in exchange for access, Duke Cunningham offering contracts to a military contractor in exchange for a yacht -- but these are exceedingly rare and, more importantly, the abusers were caught and convicted under existing laws. But these are not the problems reformers tend to highlight. Rather, they voice a more general concern that everything "bad" in American politics stems from the private financing of campaigns. Note the opening statement on Get Money Out's website:
Bailouts. War. Unemployment. Our government is bought, and we’re angry.
The insinuation is that if our campaigns were publicly financed, there'd have been no bailouts or war, and that unemployment would be lower. This is pretty ridiculous on its face (who exactly is lobbying for high unemployment, and who in Congress or the White House is keeping unemployment high to satisfy donors?), and one could easily point to countries with publicly-financed campaigns that have nonetheless found themselves with persistent high unemployment and prolonged wars in recent years. Nonetheless, the reformers persist in their quest.

One might ask, what's the harm? That is, maybe driving private money out of elections wouldn't exactly create Heaven on Earth, but maybe it would make politics a bit cleaner and make our officeholders more representative of our needs. Why not try it?

I'm actually working on a book on this very topic right now, but here's the quick answer: campaign finance reform, to a very large extent, simply hasn't worked. That is, every time a government tries to enact a specific contribution or spending limit to reduce the amount of money in elections (FECA, BCRA, you name it), innovative donors and candidates figure out ways around it. You want to give more than the limit to a group of candidates? Fine, just donate to a 527 or some sort of independent expenditure committee that can spend unlimited amounts on behalf of a candidate. Colorado's Four Millionaires showed how this can be done. This is part of the reason that, despite decades of campaign finance reform, the amount spent in campaigns continues to rise, much faster than inflation.

What's more, all this regulation has a price. If you want to know who contributed to the campaign of a president or a senator or a state legislator, it's not as easy to figure it out as it used to be. All these webs of committees that have cropped up to get around campaign finance limits end up obscuring the path of the money. Some of the money comes from individual donors, who can be identified in FEC records, but lots of it comes from groups who only have minimal disclosure requirements, and the donors to those groups may be other groups of people bundled together. Who's backing a candidate? It's almost impossible to tell nowadays.

The end result is that these reforms designed to reduce the role of money in campaigns not only don't end up reducing the role of money in campaigns, but they actually reduce accountability and transparency.

Update: I had missed Matt Yglesias' take on this same topic last month (h/t Andrew Long). He notes that banning all contributions to campaigns tends to make it difficult for anyone to run for office, and wonders just what problem this solves. He also cites Dylan Rattigan's specific proposed constitutional amendment:
No person, corporation or business entity of any type, domestic or foreign, shall be allowed to contribute money, directly or indirectly, to any candidate for Federal office or to contribute money on behalf of or opposed to any type of campaign for Federal office [emphasis added].
Beyond the problems noted above, it seems odd to write a rule into the U.S. Constitution proscribing behavior by people who are not Americans. I'd think it would make somewhat more sense if the candidate, rather than the prospective donor, were the subject of the rule.

Reconstituted nuggets

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Different approaches to reporting the news

Screen capture provided by Chris Zorn. Click to enlarge.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Some like it cold

Nate Silver examined the turnout at various Occupy Wall Street rallies during this past Saturday. He notes a couple of reasons why more people might turn out in one city than in another, including racial politics, organizational technology, and city political structures. Here's another idea: temperature. Does cold weather keep people indoors?

To answer this question, I used Silver's rally turnout estimates (Excel file) for the 36 largest rallies and divided them by each city's 2010 population to get a per capita estimate. Then I collected high temperature data for each city on that date. Here's the result:
Quite the opposite from expected: the protesters like cold weather! Of course, the coldest weather for any of these cities that day was in the 50s -- this graph might look quite different if the protests were held a month from now. (In general, I'd advise starting massive outdoor social movements in the spring rather than the fall.)

Also, there's a big heteroskedasticity problem in the data, and there just aren't many cases above 85 degrees. But dammit, I collected that data, and I was going to put the scatterplot up no matter what it said.

Beautiful dialogues

I want to highlight two recent dialogues that have been fascinating and quite enlightening for people interested in politics. The first is Ezra Klein's dialogue with Matt Miller. Miller recently wrote an article urging a third party candidacy for the presidency (an idea Hans Noel and I have picked on before), and Klein responded with this piece. Their current dialogue is far-reaching, but generally focuses on the idea of speeches versus institutions; Miller believes that an inspiring speech from a candidate untied to the current party system could change the way things are done, and Klein believes that Miller's approach totally misunderstands and misrepresents how American politics actually works. A highlight from Klein:
People in this country have different roles in the political process. And you and I have a particular one. And our particular one is to inform people, to try to explain to people how things are working and how they’re not working, and to give them a realistic idea of why. I talk to business leaders, too, and I talk to a lot of people in American politics. I talk to a lot of politicians. I talk to pundits. I talk to cable news people. I talk to all of them. And I almost never meet the structural pessimist, actually. All I meet, as far as I can tell, are people who think we just need more “leadership.” We need a president willing to stand up and fight. We need a leader who will finally take advantage of the moment and push this country forward. We need somebody willing to make the tough choices. And I find it borderline irresponsible.
Klein also mentions the dangers of a center-left presidential candidate for those who care about liberal policy goals.
Let’s say that Barack Obama runs against Rick Perry and against Matt Miller’s candidate. Do you think there is no risk in a world where Matt Miller’s candidate gets 22 percent of the vote, a remarkable showing, and throws the election to Rick Perry? You don’t think that is a risk at all?
Hans Noel has been mentioning this possibility a lot recently, and it deserves more attention than it's gotten.

Anyway, loyal readers of this blog will know that I'm partial to Klein's arguments, but it's a really informative dialogue, and if you have relatives who sound more like Miller (as I do), you'll want to learn this stuff before Thanksgiving.

Okay, dialogue number two: John Sides' discussion with.. well... himself, in preparation for a panel last night with some serious political elites on the topic of whether American politics is broken. Sides addresses the most important question: what do we mean by "broken"? Political observers love to claim that the system is broken, but they rarely explain what they mean, and the meaning has important consequences:
Q: What does “broken politics” mean?
A: People tend to mean one of two things. First, the political process is broken. Complaints about process involve different things—incivility, hyper-partisanship, gridlock, and so on. This is a complaint about means to ends. Second, they mean that the political system is unable to reach certain ends, which means people’s preferred policies. So politics is broken when the government can’t pass certain pieces of legislation, for example.
Q: Why does this distinction matter?
A: For two reasons. First, I think complaints about broken politics tend to involve the latter more than the former. Even when people complain about process, their complaints typically arise because their policy goals have been stymied. Complaints about gridlock usually don’t mean that people want just any policy to pass; they want their preferred policy to pass. Second, the two meanings of “broken politics” can imply very different solutions. If your concern is incivility or partisanship, then your solution is more consensual forms of decision-making. If your concern is policy, then you may not necessarily need to care about process. The easiest way to enact landmark legislation is often (mostly?) to get large partisan majorities and leverage their power, even at the risk of incivility or hyper-partisanship.
I give the Enik Gold Seal to both pieces. Please read.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Jensen's utopia

Arthur Jensen's memorable monologue in "Network" (1976) is a brilliant piece of propaganda. The vision it outlines is simultaneously Marxist, utopian, and capitalistic. It takes every anti-globalization screed you've ever heard and recasts it in a positive light. My students were dissecting it the other day, and we had some disagreements over its meaning. I was particularly focused on the conclusion of the monologue:
Our children… will live to see that perfect world in which there is no war and famine, oppression and brutality -- one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.
The question I asked my students was, are we now living in the world that Jensen prophesied? It is notably not a very Jeffersonian utopia that Jensen promises. No promises of freedom or knowledge or enlightenment. But yes, war is on the decline, dictatorships are on the run, stock ownership is up, famine (at least in the U.S.) has been nearly eliminated, and thanks to Prozac and the iPhone, anxiety and boredom have been conquered.

Are we there yet? And is this as good as it gets?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Tasty morsels

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Insiders holding back

Here are the two most important graphs for understanding the state of the 2012 Republican presidential nomination contest. First, the endorsements derby, as of 9/20:
The lesson here, of course, is that Romney is way ahead in collecting insider endorsements. And endorsements, as we know, do a much better job predicting who will get the nomination than money, polls, or anything else.

Okay, now the second graph (via Mark Blumenthal), which provides vital context for the first:
The lesson here is that very, very few insiders have endorsed yet. They're waiting. Which means that Romney most definitely does not have this thing sewn up. There's still plenty of time before Iowa for insiders to pick a different candidate and rally behind him or her.

That said, it's hard to say just what exactly the insiders are waiting for. The field is set. Several potentially good candidates have decided to sit this one out. So insiders can go with Romney or they can pick from the others who we saw on stage this week at the debate, and that pretty much means Perry. And we already know about as much about Perry as we're going to know. He's a lousy debater and he's probably going to stay that way. He's a bit off the party message on immigration and vaccinations but is otherwise pretty reliably conservative. Meanwhile, the economy will probably continue grow at a weak pace but probably not go back into a recession, leaving Obama vulnerable but not automatically toast. The information just won't get much better than that. What more do they want to know?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Perry still viable

It seems clear from last night's GOP roundtable debate that Rick Perry is either unwilling or unable to improve his debating skills. I mean, if you can't attack Romney as a flip-flopper, even after a month of prep, you really shouldn't be at that table. I'm sure Perry has some fine qualities, but debating isn't one of them.

Romney, meanwhile, has really thrived in the debates. He consistently comes off as informed, eloquent, and comfortable. He can attack without appearing petty, and he can defend his stance on health reform quite capably, even if it doesn't make a ton of sense. He's even funny once in a while, something others (I'm looking at you, Huntsman) keep failing to be.

What of the others? You can pretty much forget them. Yes, Cain is currently polling well, but lest we forget, polls do not predict presidential nominations. Endorsements do a much better job of that task, and those are leaning strongly Romney's way. (Cain isn't even on the chart.) Yglesias accurately describes the non-Romney-Perry part of the contest as essentially a book tour.

So why would I say that Perry is still viable? Because Romney remains a bitter pill for much of the GOP to swallow. Yes, the Mormon thing is a problem for the Evangelicals in the Republican base, but my sense is that the bulk of them would be still find a way to turn out votes for a Mormon over whatever they think Obama is. Of greater concern is the fact that Romney is a really unreliable conservative. Sure, as long as he believes he needs the right's support to get into or stay in office, he'll advocate what they want, but can they trust him to stay faithful to the cause? I imagine that a President Romney would work quite well with a Democratic Congress. That thought has to terrify conservative activists.

So what do you do if you're a conservative activist? You go with Perry. There really isn't much of an alternative right now. You reassure yourself that debates don't matter all that much, that Obama is pretty vulnerable, and that Perry has some retail politicking skills that will benefit him greatly in the next year. Until Perry proves that he absolutely can't win a general election (and we're not there yet), I would expect a lot of Republicans to stick with him. And this Michael Bay-esque appeal would, I imagine, win more than a few activists over to Perry's side (h/t Steve Greene).

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The parties on foreign policy

America's two major parties now offer us a stark choice. One indiscriminately kills thousands who have nothing to do with terror. The other illegally kills dozens who have something to do with terror.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Talking us into a recession

Yoni Appelbaum, writing in the Atlantic, argues that William Jennings Bryan single-handedly created a double-dip recession for the United States when he delivered his Cross of Gold speech in 1896:
Bryan's speech is well remembered. Its consequences are not. Wall Street panicked. For ten days after Bryan's nomination, capital fled across the Atlantic, halted only by the formation of an extraordinary consortium. Even in the months leading up to the convention, the likely ascendancy of silverite forces had spooked businessmen and investors. After Bryan's improbable triumph, the bottom fell out of the economy. The uncertain climate of the spring of 1896 gave way to a prolonged slump. Interest rates rose, investments fell, stock and bond issues dried up, building permits slumped, and new orders for capital goods failed to materialize. Industrial and commercial activity declined across the board.
I can't claim to be any sort of an expert on the Gilded Age economy. I'm sure Appelbaum pursues this line of research in greater detail elsewhere, and I really don't have data to counter him here. But given how little power presidential speeches actually have, I'm skeptical of his argument. Were investors really so skittish and naive as to believe that the claims of a presidential nominee were soon to become law? Even if Bryan were to somehow win (McKinley beat him 51-47), would he be able to get this agenda through Congress? (Republicans held a 246-104 majority in the House at the time Bryan delivered his speech.)

I suppose this is possible. I mean, if Rick Perry were nominated next year and gave a speech at his convention promising to move the U.S. to a monetary system based solely on tungsten, yeah, some folks might panic a bit. But my guess would be that the relationship between Bryan's 1896 address and American economic problems was one of correlation rather than causation.

Update: Matt Glassman notes that Bryan's nomination itself (more so than the speech), was something of a surprise, as few observers expected the silver advocates to secure two-thirds of the convention vote. So perhaps Wall Street did panic when they saw one of America's two major parties being taken over by a faction they perceived as manifestly irresponsible. Still, I'd love to see some hard evidence. I guess I need to read Appelbaum's book.

Ides of March

(Spoilers ahead.)

I took some of my students to see "The Ides of March" last night. The film was considerably better than I'd been led to believe from some of the reviews. The performances were excellent. The basic story line about ambition and betrayal was quite solid and compelling. I thought the title was a bit of a misnomer: we didn't see anything quite like the assassination of an emperor. Instead, the film reminded me somewhat of "City Hall" (1996), which showed how the routine transactions of politics can lead to tragedy. This film much more capably showed how relatively minor events -- campaign sex, beers with a rival, forgetting which cell phone is yours -- can lead to major catastrophes.

Somewhat unfortunately, the main villain in the film is ambition. Ambition is, of course, a very desirable trait in politicians, but it can admittedly be unpleasant to observe, and just because something is, on the whole, good for a political system doesn't make it good for personal human interactions. Place this film alongside "Primary Colors" as a solid study of the dark side of ambition in the context of presidential nomination politics.

So, on the whole, I'd recommend the film. But it had a number of pretty glaring (to political geeks like me, anyway) inaccuracies that I feel compelled to mention.

  • Following in the tradition of "The Contender" (2000) and "The American President" (1995), "Ides" imagined a liberal, idealistic politician who was supposed to be both inspiring and electable, yet whose policy stances put him way outside the mainstream. Clooney's Morris was an atheist, promised to eliminate the internal combustion engine within a decade, and pushed for two years of mandatory national service from 18-year olds. I'm sure these seem like mainstream stances in Hollywood, but a quick glance at easily-available polling would have shown just how fringe these views are. Or they could have run the script by one or two political geeks. We work cheap.
  • The film imagined a scenario in which Republican voters, led by the likes of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, raid Ohio's open Democratic primary to cast strategic votes for Morris' opponent, apparently because they consider Morris the more electable Democrat. This is not completely impossible, but given that the Republican nomination contest was still undecided, it's hard to believe that Republicans wouldn't want to weigh in on that race instead of trying to tinker with the Democratic one.
  • Morris believed he had suppressed the intern scandal when he took on Stephen as his campaign manager. But the scandal is going to come out anyway! The police who noted Molly's drug overdose surely also noted from the prescription labels that the drugs in question came from a nearby abortion clinic; an autopsy will confirm a recent abortion. The clinic will note that the abortion was paid for in cash, and at least one nurse there might recognize the man who accompanied Molly to the clinic as the campaign manager from all the recent TV and newspapers stories. In other words, it won't take a terribly gifted reporter or investigator more than a few days to determine that right before her death, Molly had an abortion paid for by the Morris campaign. That's already fairly damaging, and probably more will come to light after that. (You think she's the first intern he'd slept with?)
These little inaccuracies and holes are hardly fatal for the film, but they could have been thought through a bit better. Still, given the relative paucity of films about primaries, go see this anyway.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The complex racial views of Jess Robin

As far as I know, "The Jazz Singer" (1980) is the only mainstream Hollywood film that can be considered Yom Kippur-themed. (No, "Atonement" doesn't count.) Thus I find myself thinking about the Neil Diamond film every year on Yom Kippur. Just FYI, despite the fact that the film is broadly labeled a bomb and that Lawrence Olivier himself derided it as a "piece of shit," it is considered a classic in my family and can be quoted from liberally by my relatives just as easily as "Godfather" and "Princess Bride."

This year, I found myself stewing over the film's bizarre racial message. To wit:

  • Jess Robin's (Neil Diamond) best friend in the film is an African American singer named Bubba, who is trying to make a living as a member of an all-black band called the Four Brothers. When one of the Brothers gets arrested, Robin fills in at a gig at an all-black nightclub by wearing blackface (see picture above). Yes, blackface. Now, I know this is a shout-out to the 1927 Al Jolson version of the film, but still, blackface.
  • In this same scene, an audience member outs Robin as caucasian. He notices this not from the fact that it's Neil Freaking Diamond on stage wearing shoe polish on his face (no, that was apparently convincing enough), but because the singer doesn't have any pigment on the back of his hands. The audience member (a pre-"Ghostbusters" Ernie Hudson) shouts, "He ain't no brother; he's a white boy!" A riot ensues. Yes, a riot. This was 1980. Every person in that audience could remember race riots in the 1960s fought over things like poverty, injustice, bigotry, assassinations.... This riot occurred because someone discovered that Neil Diamond was white.
  • Robin later moves to L.A. (where Bubba has already gone) to try to break into popular music. His first audition is a big failure, so he, the Four Brothers, his manager Molly (Lucie Arnaz), and others decide to throw a really lame party. This involves Robin singing an idyllic song about the postbellum South ("The Robert E. Lee") right in Bubba's face.
  • Later, after a taste of success, Robin freaks out and hitchhikes to the Deep South, where he fronts a country/western band in local honky-tonk. While he's told no one where he went, Bubba nonetheless finds him, presumably due to some magical negro powers or something.

Yeah, it's a weird movie. It's also ripe for a remake. Maybe they should mix things up a bit and cast Natalie Portman as the cantor longing to stray from her Brooklyn roots. Streisand could play her cantor mother. Just a thought.

The best of the best

  • Ezra Klein does a beautiful job investigating the flawed (if somewhat defensible) economic assumptions of the incoming Obama administration in 2008-09 and asks whether things could have gone differently.
  • Steven Greene: "[George] Will is not particularly bright. He’s just got a good vocabulary and wears bow ties. That’s enough to fool most people."
  • Christie and Palin decided not to run for president? Jonathan Bernstein thinks they actually were running (see here and here), and got selected out by the invisible primary.
  • Greg Koger provides some context for what happened in the Senate last week. See also Sarah Binder, a.k.a. The Senate Whisperer.
  • John Sides provides a Moneyball-esque perspective to campaign finance.
  • Great interview with Steven Pinker about declining violence worldwide. Interesting quote: "Even if you subtract all the killings with firearms and count only the ones with rope, knives, lead pipes, wrenches, candlesticks, and so on, Americans still kill at a higher rate than Europeans."
  • Via Chris Federico, a Soviet-era ad for Aeroflot. It's not obvious to me why a government enterprise with no competitor needed to advertise, nor why the Russians couldn't find any better dancers.
  • How to carve a Death Star Jack-o-lantern and turn your dog into an ATAT.
  • White people had a hard week.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

How quickly we forget

A busy schedule and a tight budget unfortunately kept me from attending last weekend's Clinton '92 campaign reunion in Little Rock. I have no idea if the Washington Post's coverage of the event is representative of what really went on there, but I really hope not:
The class of ’92 cast its reunion as a tacit — and sometimes not so tacit — rebuke of the current president and his un-Clintonian aversion to the political fray. Some erstwhile Clinton aides wore “I Miss Bill” T-shirts and “It’s Still About the [Expletive] Economy, Stupid” buttons. Others privately regretted Hillary Rodham Clinton’s acceptance of the secretary of state post — the theory being that she would be better positioned to replace Obama if she had stayed in the Senate.
I'm pleased to see President Clinton himself in the article dismissing the Obama comparisons as off-base. But really, do these folks remember what that first term was like? I remember showing up to work when Clinton's approval ratings were in the 30s, lower than Obama's have ever been. And yeah, there was a lot of soul searching -- Were we doing it right? Why wasn't his message getting through? Did we misread the voters in 1992? Was he doomed to be a one-termer? But I don't remember any of us saying that the country would have been better if we'd backed Harkin or Tsongas or Brown.

I would agree that Clinton had more of a love for the rough-and-tumble of partisan politics than Obama does, but exactly what did he have to show for it by this point in his first term? Yes, Clinton's first budget passed, including a tax hike on upper income earners, but he lost on the stimulus that year. Health reform was in ruins. Don't-ask-don't-tell was a compromise that no one liked. His only other big legislative wins were NAFTA and the crime bill, both of which were staunchly opposed by sizable chunks of liberal congressional Democrats. Contrast that with Obama's record on health reform, student loan reform, financial sector reform, the Lilly Ledbetter Act, the end of DADT... it's really quite impressive, and not something liberals should be dismissing. Sure, liberals have plenty of reasons to be upset with Obama's concessions to Republicans on budgetary matters, but does no one remember Clinton's concessions? His triangulations after the 1994 election? His hiring of Dick Morris?

This is not to disparage Clinton's accomplishments as president. There were many, and I am proud of the very small role I played in them. But the fierce partisan fighter some folks seem to recall is largely fictitious, and to the extent it was real, just how great was it? Winning the news cycle is not the same as enacting an agenda.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

In a world where jurors are dyspeptic...

Here's the theatrical trailer for "12 Angry Men." I've seen many cases where the trailer is far better than the film, but this is one of the few where the film absolutely buries the trailer. They try to make it look like an action movie, for Heaven's sake. I can only imagine audiences walking out saying, "But it was just some guys talking!"

Monday, October 3, 2011

Looking presidential

Sullivan's been very good to me, but I've got to disagree with him here when he decides that Chris Christie's weight may be a disqualifying factor:
Presidents in the modern age are increasingly required to look presidential. No baldies or beards, for example, since Eisenhower and some dude in the nineteenth century. Perry and Romney are almost made in a presidential Ken factory - and both presumably dye their hair (as, obviously, did Reagan). Looks, in other words, matter on an unconscious level in a president. We respond to these signals before our frontal cortexes kick in.
As John Sides reminds us, this is empirically wrong on the specific area of girth: overweight male candidates are evaluated somewhat more positively than thin ones (although overweight female candidates suffer a penalty). Besides, we've actually had overweight presidents. Taft was enormous (this was hardly a secret even before television), and Clinton struggled with his weight before heart troubles forced him onto a strict low-fat diet. (Does he look more presidential now that's he's gaunt?) So to say that overweight men don't look presidential seems a bit odd when we've had overweight presidents.

More generally, though, the idea that candidates have to "look presidential" is highly problematic, giving sanction to all sorts of bigotry. It's hard to separate "looking presidential" from "looking like the presidents we've already had," which leads to some uncomfortable areas. It wasn't too long ago that a sizable chunk of Americans wouldn't have found an African American "presidential" looking. No doubt many feel that way about women today. And Jews. And short people. And people with disabilities. Would that ultimately affect many people's votes? My guess is that it would be hard to find a measurable "presidential-looking" effect that moves votes beyond the major influences we can detect (economic growth/recession, war/peace, extremism/moderation). But maybe there is such an effect. Should we cater to it?

Do parties consciously nominate slim candidates, concerned that voters will be turned off by heavy ones? I really don't know. But if so, this sounds like bigotry, plain and simple. It's no different from Spencer Tracy in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" opposing his daughter's marriage to a black man, not because he had any problem with blacks, but because he was concerned that other people did. Any way you slice it, you're disqualifying someone based on physical appearance.

Misplaced nostalgia

An actual tweet:
This was posted after last night's episode of "Pan Am," in which Christina Ricci's character used a fork to fend off an attempted rape by a drunken passenger only to be hushed by her colleagues (warning her to not jeopardize her job) and ridiculed by a pilot (who tries to mollify the rapist with a scotch). The show doesn't handle the subplot particularly well -- Ricci gets a little you-go-girl moment toward the end of the episode, and I'm assuming that's the last we'll hear of that. And, of course, it's just a minor subplot, not meant to distract from the overall glamor of the show or its basic message, "It was really cool to be a servant." The message apparently got through to the tweeter above.

Compare this attempted rape scene to the portrayal of the rape of Joan by her husband in "Mad Men." It's a truly terrifying scene, even though much of the action occurs off-camera; not only does Joan have no way to stop the assault, but she has no recourse for it afterwards. There was not event a concept of spousal rape for her to report to anyone. It was simply one of those things that some women had to endure in exchange for the security of married life.

"Mad Men" demonstrates the dangers women (even white, educated, relatively successful women) faced fifty years ago by virtue of being women in the United States. "Pan Am" suggests that it was glamorous being a woman then, and that the dangers, while real, could be fended off with utensils and a little pluck.

It's not fair to say that "Pan Am" sucks because it's not as good as "Mad Men" -– few shows are. But it seems to be nostalgic for an era that doesn't necessarily deserve it.

Party before government

It looks like some enterprising individuals are trying to construct parties in Libya:
As Libya's new leaders work on setting the country right and eliminating the last holdouts of Muammar Gaddafi’s loyalists, budding politicians are looking forward to the planned elections.
"Our party is being formed," said Abdel Dayem al-Gharabli, a lawyer from Zawiyah, west of Tripoli, after lengthy talks in a cafe with a group of friends. 
To be called the National Democratic Encounter, it aims to be broad-based, supporting the rule of law and respect for liberties, he said.
The really interesting thing here, of course, is that there's not yet a government for the parties to influence, a legislature to which to recruit members, or elections in which to participate. There's a provisional government, and there will likely be a constitutional convention next year, followed a year later by some sort of legislative and presidential elections. Parties are forming now with an eye to influencing the process of creating a government.

This is reminiscent (to me, anyway) of the argument advanced in The Party Decides that America's constitutional Founders were essentially a party. They built a government that would protect and advance their interests, and deliberately made that government very hard to change (the amendment procedure is a very high wall, and the separation of powers structure is filled with veto points making it difficult to pass sweeping laws). Importantly, they organized and planned to control a government prior to that government's existence.

In Libya, it is not entirely clear on what basis these parties are being formed. They certainly have their roots in geography and ethnicity, but some sorts of ideological claims may be built on top of those.

(h/t Marc Herman)