Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Cacophonous Concerto

Cacophonous Concerto—How Polarization Makes Everything Sound Bad

One of the truly wonderful things about being a parent is to see your child dressed up in a silly robe and an even sillier square hat, tasseled and sashed, looking painfully young and even more painfully half grown up. 

I had that pleasure this past weekend at Northwestern: a kaleidoscope of marches and brass, and orbs and scepters, and meetings and lunches and prizes and a thousand pictures and probably as many hugs (mostly of complete strangers.)

Ricardo Muti, the world-renowned conductor of the Chicago Symphony, gave the commencement address.  He was charming, speaking of the power of music to unite, telling a story of the time he coached a policeman on how to make fabulous riches wearing white tie and tails (mostly, move your hand one-two-three, trust the orchestra to know what they are doing, and try to look both impressive and enraptured) and finally talking about the human need for person to person communication as the only real salvation.  Less text, more talk, persevere, preserve, and nurture your relationships.

Muti’s words might have been chosen for a large audience, but the day before, in a far more intimate setting, Sandy Goldberg, Chair of the Philosophy Department, said something that struck me as the critical corollary to Muti’s words, and something perhaps even more important. Philosophy isn’t just about ideas or abstractions.  It does something more critical.  Philosophy teaches people how to talk to each other, and philosophy teaches how to disagree. 

I’m sure neither Muti nor Goldberg was thinking about politics, but they couldn’t have been more prescient.  Democracy works best when there is constant communication, vigorous but respectful disagreement, and a commitment to continued discussion. 

Unfortunately, we seem to be moving, rather rapidly, in the opposite direction.  The evidence of increasing polarization is stark. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press has published the first of a five part series Political Polarization in the American Public.   Pew polled 10,013 people over a three-month period earlier this year.  It then went back and did more in depth follow up interviews with a representative sample.   What the Pew study found was fascinating, and a little unsettling.  There are two major trends that emerge—the growing uniformity of opinion amongst members of the same ideological group and political party, and the growing antipathy they feel for each other.    

Let’s dive into the numbers, but first, take a deep breath. 

92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.  That tells you that there is no real middle ground for consensus and deal making.  Instead, the parties have to take the next step—swap one priority for another. 

Can they do that?  Can they, in Sandy Goldberg’s construct, act the philosopher, agree to disagree respectfully and talk through issues?  Can they see the other side as anything other than antagonists?

First, many of them have to hurdle their own gut.  27% of Democrats see Republicans as a literal “threat to the nation” and 36% of Republicans say the same about their Democratic brethren. 

And, about that word “brethren” I would tread lightly. When consistent conservatives and consistent liberals were asked how they felt about one of their immediate family members “marrying the wrong kind” 30% of the conservatives and 23% of the liberals couldn’t cope. 

Well, maybe you wouldn't want your sister to marry one, but that doesn’t mean the place has to be fumigated if he visits, right?  Actually, no.  50% of consistent conservatives and 35% of consistent liberals want to live in a community where most people share their political views, 57% of consistent conservatives want those folk to be coreligionists (only 17% of consistent liberals care about that) and 76% of consistent liberals want racial and ethnic diversity while only 20% of conservatives do.

So, governing had become impossible, right?  If, on the most basic and visceral level, we can’t even abide living near people on the other side of the spectrum, how do we try to compromise with them to reach a governing consensus? Is democracy is doomed?

I would offer a qualified no.  There is no question that polarization has increased markedly since 1994, and that the two poles don’t even see the same reality.  Pew calls it living in “ideological silos” where joining the “club” means adopting a long list of constantly reinforced articles of faith.

There is also no doubt that politically opinionated people tend to be more motivated to vote and have a disproportionate impact on elections.  Pew found that, “nationwide, 21% are either consistently liberal or consistently conservative in their political values. But these people make up a larger share of the electorate – 28% of people who say they always vote and 34% of those who always vote in primaries.”

Yet, there are things to be encouraged about. Partisanship has grown markedly, but still only 21% of the voters are inflexible ideologues.  That means 79% are not.  The rest of us don’t have to let those 21% decide for us.  But there’s a catch. We can be pretty certain that the 21% is not uniformly distributed.  In some places, the concentration of the rabid is going to be much higher, given the propensity for like to want to live with like.  That places a far greater burden on the less doctrinaire to do something that they seem unwilling to do—step up to the plate and make their voices heard through the ballot box, starting with the primaries. 

And the responsibilities don’t end there, because the fringes are anything but marginalized.  Even if the 79% weigh in in the primaries, we are still going to have a substantial number of people in Congress who seem to have very little interest in either lawmaking or compromising.  A lot of them are angry, and truly loathe not only members of the other party, but any of their own who show the slightest deviation from revealed truth.  If you want to see something truly hair-raising, watch Chris McDaniel’s “non concession” speech after he narrowly lost to Thad Cochran in Tuesday’s Mississippi Republican Primary.   McDaniel is almost sputtering with rage, accusing Cochran of all sorts of irregularities. 

Just a few more thousand votes, and McDaniel would have been the nominee, and likely the next Senator from deep Red Mississippi.  He would join a Congress that is filling up with people just like him, always looking for someone to punch.  It would have been another movement away from the discussion, respectful disagreement, and the compromise that a democracy demands. 

Therein lies the paradox for the 79%. We want what Muti and Goldberg want--to start the orchestra working together, communicating with each other, arguing even, but within the confines of a team.  We expect that there will be false notes and dissonance, but it’s not going to improve if everyone goes off into their private practice room.  But we also don’t like our institutions or our elected representatives very much, and our very revulsion for how poorly they do and how ugly they are estranges us.  Instead of diving in and wresting control, and working at it until it sounds the way it should, we turn away and yield to it.

The next time you see some bill in Congress, perhaps imperfect, but largely a positive, being sabotaged by a group of absolutists, remember that.  It's not them.  It's us. There are way more of us then of them, and it’s only our inaction, and our silence, that enables them.

If you really want better, you have to open your mind, and open your ears, and, ultimately, you have to fight to have others do the same.

There is no other way to make beautiful music together.

June 25, 2014

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

Please join us on Twitter @SyncPol

Monday, June 16, 2014

Cantor's Lament

Cantor’s Lament

Eric Cantor fell last week.  He lost the Republican primary to David Brat, an obscure Economics Professor from Randolph Macon College, despite outspending him by at least ten times.  His incumbency, his position as House Majority Leader, his prodigious fundraising ability, and his power did him absolutely no good.

He fell alone, seemingly without friends.  Perhaps he had none.  Before his political corpse was cold, his colleagues in the House were scrambling to replace him as House Majority Leader. 

As of this writing, Kevin McCarthy, the affable chief House Whip, seems to have enough votes to replace Cantor, although Idaho’s hard right Raul Labrador (among the hawkish of hawks on immigration) wants to challenge him.  The machinery of party politics marches on.  But in the quiet offices where power is wielded and strategy set (and especially in the press that reports on them) there has been a certain amount of confusion and concern.

Cantor wasn’t Dick Lugar of Indiana or Bob Bennett of Utah, older Senators who were unexpectedly ambushed by Tea Party candidates, or even 72-year-old Thad Cochran of Mississippi, currently forced into a runoff.  The Teas haven’t had the greatest success in this election cycle, as older incumbent Republicans largely came forewarned and forearmed.  Yet Cantor, only 51, and in all likelihood the heir apparent to Boehner when he retires, will be looking for work in January. 

So, how the heck did this happen? 

Let’s start with the obvious.  First, the Tea Party might be a little bruised, but they aren’t dead.  This despite the fondest wishes of some of the GOP establishment (and, if they were smart, Democrats who are actually interested in seeing government work instead of just government.)  Given the right environment and the right candidate (or candidates) there’s absolutely no reason why they can’t continue to win, or at the very least, throw a scare into their opposition. Plenty of states remain fertile ground for their movement.  Texas has largely gone Tea, and several others, including Kansas and Oklahoma, are so conservative that it’s probably irrelevant.  Tea Party energy can still bring out the votes.

Second, gerrymandering really matters.  To measure partisanship, political scientists use the Cook Partisan Voting Index to see where any Congressional District lies politically in comparison to the rest of the country. You calculate PVI by comparing the district's average partisan share of the two-party presidential vote in the past two presidential elections to the nation's average share of the same.  To make that clearer, if Obama averaged a 52% share over his two elections nationally, but a particular Congressional District went for Obama by 57%, it would be a D+5.

That doesn’t make election a certainty, you need to throw in additional idiosyncratic factors such as the value of incumbency and personal popularity, but the larger analysis still holds. A Congressional District that’s rated “D+5” would be expected to yield about a 5% edge over the national trend to the Democrat in the election.  He could still lose in a wave year, or because of a gaffe or some personal scandal, but the probabilities are in his favor.  Of course, politicians don’t like “probable” when it comes to job security.  They like certainty.  If D+5 sounds good, D+10 sounds better. 

That is where the mapmakers come in. Getting from swing to D+5 to D+10 is simply a function of the mapmaker’s creativity, and state legislatures control redistricting.  More accurately, the party that controls the state legislature is the one that controls redistricting.  Usually, redistricting is done after a national census, to reflect the changes in the state’s Congressional allocation, but it doesn’t have to be.  Texas did a massive redistricting in 2003 that flipped the delegation’s partisan tilt on its head. 

Politicians do this because it works.  Per Cook’s report, since 1998, the number of D+5 to R+5 Congressional Districts has dropped from 164 to 90.  Boehner owes his majority to redistricting (the Democrats actually won the aggregate national congressional vote)--but there is a potentially toxic side effect.  The “safer” your district is, the more insulated you get from any ideas other than your own.  And “safer” can be an illusion, because being “more Republican” or “more Democratic” may just mean you are enhancing the power of the ideological activists--the ones most likely to vote in a primary or show up in a caucus or convention.  They are also the ones most likely to demand fealty. 

Historically, incumbents didn’t care if zealous folk showed up on primary day, because the two-party system was the only game in town.  So, you pander a bit to the fire-eaters to make them feel good, and then, if you think you have any chance of being in an even competitive race, tack back to the center a bit.  Incumbents just were never considered endangered from within.  One of the few primary upsets of the order of magnitude of Cantor’s loss was in 1972 when Elizabeth Holtzman defeated Emmanuel Celler, a fifty-year veteran of the House and powerful Chair of the Judiciary Committee.  Celler never saw it coming.  Only in hindsight did some of the same issues that plagued Cantor (too much power, too little concern for the needs at home) emerge.

So, why worry?  Cantor apparently didn’t, at least initially.  He didn’t perceive the possibility of a viable challenge from the right.  In fact, his people were more concerned that his fairly safe R District could trend Bluer (or at least Purple, as Virginia as a whole was.)  So, at the time of redistricting, and looking at longer-term viability, they pushed to add even more conservative voters from an adjoining, very conservative county, while subtracting votes from more liberal Richmond precincts.   The plan worked--the district is currently rated R+10, which is pretty impregnable in all but the most extreme circumstances.  Provided, however, that you get the nomination.

In this, Cantor stumbled.  He had never been particularly good at connecting on a personal level.  Pretty much all the “professional” qualities that made him effective (although disliked) in Washington did him absolutely no good back at home among primary voters.  His power became a handicap because he was perceived as loving Washington and the game too much, and his District too little.  His connections to the financial services industry just showed him in the pockets of the bankers (which would have been fine for your father’s GOP, but is decidedly less attractive to the more populist Tea Party types.) Cantor had blocked immigration reform, but even the smallest hint that he was in league with Facebook and the tech industry to bring in highly skilled immigrants touched off the anti-immigration forces. David Brat suddenly became a little bit of a cause célèbre.  Fox loved him, as did the network of conservative talk-show hosts.  Laura Ingram parachuted in and wowed them. 

So, last Tuesday, when that thin slice of his constituency, all gerrymandered, radicalized, and distilled, looked at Eric Cantor, they saw a stranger, not someone to give their loyalty to.  It wasn’t even close.

There are few people who will mourn Cantor.  Certainly I won’t—his cold-blooded machinations sabotaged some efforts at bipartisanship.  But the idea that smaller and smaller segments of the voting population should be choosing a greater and greater number of the people who lead us—that worries me a lot. 

Government without accountability, whether from the Right or the Left, leads inevitably to abuse. 

That’s my lament. 

June 16, 2014

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

Please follow us on twitter @SyncPol

Monday, June 9, 2014

Bowe Bergdahl's Collateral Casualties

Bowe Bergdahl’s Collateral Casualties

It has been ten days since Bowe Bergdahl was released from five years of captivity and flown to a hospital in Germany, and for ten days I have wrestling with it, trying to marshal my thoughts and my emotions. 

Contrary to my usual “junkie” approach, I have deliberately been far more restrained in what I read and how I engage with others.  That takes effort, because it’s a 24-hour a day story, and the accusations and denunciations have reached such a screech that it’s hard to separate fact from fiction.

Are we less safe?  I honestly don't know.  The GOP and affiliated media have conjured up armies of terrorists walking our streets preparing to strike at freckle-faced children. Maybe we are less safe—these weren’t choirboys we released, and whatever the terms that were worked out with the Omani’s (who acted as go between) it’s at best hopeful thinking that these chaps will abide by them.  So, that means we are less safe? It depends on whom you ask.  Retired General James Mattis (Marines) appeared on CNN to say that US commanders in Afghanistan always lived with the fear that their attacks would spur the Taliban to kill Bergdahl.  With Bergdahl returned, they no longer had this constraint.  Who is Mattis, besides an obvious Obama-bot, and what could he know that a talking head in the media or empty head in Congress wouldn’t?  He was the former Chief of the US Central Command (which included Afghanistan) from 2010 to 2013.

Have we “negotiated with terrorists?”  I will spare people the distant past (during the Reagan years) when the Taliban were seen as freedom fighters as they squared off against the Russians.  Let’s go with a yes.  We have negotiated with terrorists, and just to be clear, we are continuing to negotiate with those same terrorists over a wide range of issues as we wind down our involvement there, something the American people very much want.  And, not to make an obvious point, but you are never negotiating with friends when you are talking about getting back a hostage.  We do not have to invite them over for tea and finger sandwiches.  If you want the job done, you put on your waders and rubber gloves.  That’s reality.

OK, so what about this 5/1 swap?  Outrageous, and demonstrates the usual Obama weakness?  I find this one bizarre.  The Israelis, perhaps the most tough-minded people among the democracies of the world, routinely swap dozens, hundreds, and sometimes into the thousands in return for one of theirs—including the dead.  One thousand for one dead body? They do this for two reasons—because they are hardheaded realists, and that’s what it takes, and because, in a tiny little country like theirs, they need to let every citizen know that they belong something bigger.  It's called looking after your own.

Was Bergdahl worth it?  Was he worth anything? That’s a hard question.  Clearly he was no hero.  Bergdahl is by all accounts a deeply troubled man, apparently refusing even to phone his parents, who haven’t spoke to him in five long years.  He’s not a hero, he’s not a saint, and he’s not even a villain.  Just as sad kid who got involved in things that were bigger than his emotional resilience could manage.  We can judge him all we want—he’s made himself the target of our opinions, and even our disdain, by his actions. 

So, he wasn’t worth it?  You don’t negotiate with terrorists, make us weaker, and give the opportunity for columns of Taliban to search for nearest Senior’s community to savage for a mental case and a “traitor?” 

That’s a very complicated question.  Consider the following.  In WWII, one in four casualties were for “battle fatigue.”  And that’s the Greatest Generation—men who grew up in the Depression, who perhaps had a far better understanding of what a little want and discomfort could mean.  The ratio of “mentals” to total casualties for those in lengthy and extended combat was one in two.  The Pacific theatre was particularly bad, with tropical weather, the creepiness of the jungle, and the threat of kamikaze attacks making fear an enveloping companion.  26,000 men were deemed psychiatric cases and had to be evacuated just in the brutal effort to take Okinawa.

Would you really have left 26,000 men in Okinawa because they went a little nuts?  Are you really so sure of yourself that, if you were put in harm’s way, you would never succumb to fear?  Imagine a society that would simply walk away from people of whom it had asked the highest sacrifice?

The fact is you don’t have to admire Bergdahl, or hold a parade for him, or shower him with medals.  The real tragedy of the Bergdahl affair isn’t that he’s back, or how he got back.  It’s whom he came back to.  We have acted in a way unworthy of our better instincts.  Or, to put it more directly, most of us ought to be a little ashamed of the last couple of weeks. 

So, and I would include myself in some of these, let me test-drive the condemnatory phrase “appalling.”

Appalling is the fact that Mr. Obama fail to comply with the thirty day notification requirement.  Constitutional or not (it probably isn’t) and like it or not, it’s still the law.  He didn’t comply and he should have.  Of course, we know why he didn’t.  He had a window of opportunity to make the deal, some emergent need, and he knew Republicans would never support it and run immediately to Fox to kill it. But to notify was his obligation, and he didn’t.

Appalling is the Congressional Republicans who claimed they knew nothing.  They were in fact briefed in detail both in 2011 and 2012, and they did express concerns then on prisoner swaps.  What they also did was continue to insist that Obama do everything possible to bring Bergdahl home, and made a point of complaining when it didn’t occur.

Appalling is the Rose Garden announcement by Mr. Obama.  Whatever else you might think of Bergdahl, he’s not a figure that inspires admiration.  Tasteless and bleh and tone deaf. 

Appalling are the efforts by both parties to quickly defend what they would have condemned if a fellow named Bush was still in office, or condemn what they would have defended.

Appalling is the concerted effort by Republicans to erase their past demands on Mr. Obama to get Bergdahl released and highlight their own efforts on his behalf. So many of them are doing their very best to emulate the old Capo Frank Pentaglia in “The Godfather II” who claimed no knowledge of the Corleone Family.  Yes, in the old days, he was in the olive oil business with Vito Corleone, but “Corleone Family?”  Never heard of it. Rather than review the last five years and list every bit of Republican hypocrisy on this (we have a word count at Syncopated Politics) I would just like to refer you to the timeline published in the Washington Post by Jamie Fuller, and her excellent follow-up pieces.    Be forewarned.  We aren’t taking about general statements made years ago.  Several prominent Republicans are even going so far to have recent tweets scrubbed.

I'm afraid that's the best I can do.  Just appalling.  All of us.  The shell of what is Bowe Bergdahl is going to return at some point.  Maybe we should be asking, are we even worthy of him?

June 9, 2014

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

Please join us on Twitter @SyncPol