Tag Archives: 2016 elections

Building Better Districts

Things are beginning to heat up not just in the Presidential primaries, but in more local elections around the US as well. While the writing has long been on the wall for some of the most effectively gerrymandered districts of Virginia Republicans, it wasn’t clear who would necessarily be the biggest loser in a similar campaign for better district boundaries in Florida.

It looked like Democrat Corrine Brown might actually be the most threatened sitting representative by the redesign of her district. As a “dump” district designed to absorb Democratic-leaning Black voters making most nearby districts more easily won by Republicans, her individual interest in keeping her familiar district aligned with those of the state’s Republican Party. Worse yet for the Democrats, the idea was floated that Brown’s district might be expanded into a neighboring district held by fellow Democrat Gwen Graham. In short, an effort to redraw Florida’s districts so there wouldn’t be such a marked difference between districts seemed like it might just exacerbate that problem.

The new congressional map has been released and Brown actually appears to have avoided that worst possible outcome. Her prior district contributes nearly forty percent of the population in her new one, but so does the former tenth district. Her personal political charm will be put to the test with a largely new electorate she has to appeal to. Whether it’s Brown herself or one of her primary challengers who becomes the Democratic nominee, the new district won’t have lost much of its Democratic-leaning character. By one estimate it will be at least a D+10 to the former district’s D+16.

There’s some similar shuffling of populations that will happen to other Democrat-held districts further south within the state, but the ultimate results are more or less the same. While this might disrupt individual Democratic office-holder’s local support, it’s unlikely to cost the Democratic Party as a whole any of these seats. In an odd way, the increased jockeying within the Party might create an environment in which better candidates rise to the forefront of the Democratic Party in Florida.

That is not an apt description of how the redistricting is going to affect Republican representative Daniel Webster. His tenth district doesn’t appear to move very far on the map, unlike Brown’s radically reinvented district. Some of the more rural western parts of it are shaved off, however, and the district incorporates parts of Orlando which were previously carved out of it. The subtle changes are in high enough density areas to make a huge difference: not even forty percent of its original population is still in it.

(Left – the former 10th District, Right – the new 10th District. From here.)

This isn’t the kind of situation that Brown finds herself in either, where her losing the district would almost certainly be to another Democrat. Webster’s district is, by most counts, going to be almost as Democratic-leaning as Brown’s new one, and at the cost of most likely zero current Democratic-leaning districts.

While an extremely moderate Republican might be able to shed their skin in classic Floridan political fashion, Webster is fairly fringe. Recently, he was the Freedom Caucus’ alternative to Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) for Speaker of the House. One of the Webster’s premier political accomplishments dates back to his years within the Florida state government, where in 2008 he pioneered a set of anti-abortion restrictions that would ultimately become the widespread requirement of a transvaginal ultrasound. Walking that back to appeal to a roughly D+10 district seems rather unlikely.

This might be the future of representative reorganization in the US: Democratic complacency getting a bit of a shake-up and Republicans falling by the wayside of an electorate that they don’t reflect.

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Wet, weird, and weirder

A number of interesting looks at well-covered situations have come out this week, so I think it’s important for everyone to give them a one-over, if nothing else, to enrich the conversation around them.

MinuteEarth, a YouTube channel that specializes in short science-focused videos that describe a given natural phenomenon, put out an intriguing piece on Tuesday. This is just one data point in the broader scatter plot, but it seems like the conversation around climate change and its far-reaching effects has not only become something of a regular topic for many people, but that the emphasis in it has shifted. While protests still happen, there’s been a changing tone, away from addressing carbon pollution and other causes of the globe’s warming and towards mitigating the impacts.

The clear perspective in the video – not only that climate change is a real issue and will have demonstrable negative effects, but that certain policies need to considered as soon as possible – is a sign of how much that change has happened. In a science-minded space like MinuteEarth, that shows how the assessment of what we can do about the problem has changed. On a popular venue like YouTube, it’s a sign of how the broader popular culture might change towards thinking and talking about the issue as well.

On Wednesday, Talking Points Matter turned their spotlight on Ben Carson. With holes appearing in his description of his professional past and a bizarre past statement surfacing about the “real” use of the pyramids as grain stores (as apparently biblically described), his presidential primary campaign has taken a dramatic turn for the surreal. Well, more surreal. TPM chose to highlight a part of his candidacy obscured by the somehow more fantastic elements (pyramids!) and more overtly disqualifying ones (lying!): his Bush-like subtle references dropped for certain evangelical circles and the John Birch Society to pick up while others stand around confused. As Ed Kilgore put it-

[T]he real key for understanding Carson (like Beck) is via the works of Cold War-era John Birch Society member and prolific pseudo-historian W. Cleon Skousen, who stipulated that America was under siege from the secret domestic agents of global Marxism who masqueraded as liberals. Carson has also clearly bought into the idea that these crypto-commies are systematically applying the deceptive tactics of Saul Alinsky in order to destroy the country from within—a theme to which he alluded in the famous National Prayer Breakfast speech that launched his political career and in the first Republican presidential candidates’ debate.

It’s not clear how many Carson supporters hear the dog whistles and understand what his constant references to “political correctness” connote (it’s his all-purpose term for the efforts of America’s secret enemies to mock or silence cognoscenti like himself, Beck and Skousen), but added with his other advantages, it fills out his coalition with depth as well as breadth.

Never fear though! The same day, 538 published a deliciously exhaustive look at the structure of the delegate system within the Republican presidential primary, and they couldn’t have been clearer in their findings. In a nutshell, the system is designed to keep the Republican Party a national party, with wide appeal. Delegates aren’t awarded evenly based on population, but they are more evenly distributed than Republican voters, particularly in the general election. While there are bonus delegate seats given to areas with more current Republican officeholders, those are swamped by the popular vote delegates which work like a kind of pre-run of the electoral college.

As I’ve noted before, one of the key problems with that part of our voting system is that turnout is irrelevant. An incredibly small group of people in heavily weighted districts can easily outvote much larger populations, because people don’t vote, districts, weighted by population and as a single bloc or with proportionate representation, do. A similar situation to the hypothetical situation I noted in that post has become a regular occurrence within the Republican presidential primary, at least according to 538. A small number of “blue state” Republican voters cast votes that stand-in for the much larger population they live among and who lean variously away from the Republican Party. Largely comparatively socially liberal and interested in the Republican Party because of economic policies, they’re often able to swing the party back from it’s more regionally popular candidates seemingly at the last minute.

Ben Carson may have the lasting power described by Talking Points Memo, but that’s all moot if he can’t bring himself into vogue with more moderate portions of the Republican Party, which actually have more sway that commonly realized.

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Reagan Democrat yesterday, independent tomorrow

Trigger warning: racism

Earlier today, sitting West Virginia Senator Jim Webb announced that he’s wrapping up his candidacy to be the Democratic Party nominee for president in 2016. His official campaign announcement underscores that he will remain politically active and for the time being continue to run for president. His website still requests visitors for donations, claiming that with “enough financial support to conduct a first-class campaign, there is no doubt that we can put the issues squarely before the American people and gain their support.” That certainly implies that he is seeking the funds to run a write-in or third party campaign. With that potentially pulling Democratic voters away from the Party’s nominee, you might wonder why the Democratic Senate is weakening his own Party’s chances in the general election. As a kicker to his announced withdrawal, he has stated that he is unsure he will remain a registered Democrat.

As he lays out in his statement, the most overt case made for his candidacy is essentially that as a Reagan administration official turned Democratic Senator (turned independent?) he would be able to transcend partisanship. The fundamental assumption baked into his politics is that partisan hostilities are driving polarization in politics. Divergent ideas about who we are and how we should organize this country are, in this view, irrelevant. The singular way he speaks of gaining support from “the American people” suggests he may not even consider that a facet of the modern US. While his call for bipartisan comity will likely inspire some, they’re attractive to most voters as an end goal, not a means of governance. The surging popularity of more combative candidates – from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump – demonstrates that large numbers of voters want some sort of a conflict between the parties. For many, it seems, they envision a war to secure the peace that Webb describes.

When it comes to his party affiliation, the Senator’s comments in the recent Democratic debate linger around the edges of his withdrawn candidacy. His in-person and textual versions of the announcement both declared that he felt that the Democratic primary is more or less rigged, mainly to the advantage of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He was vague, however, as to what differences drove support towards her and made him “not compatible with the power structure and the nominating base of the Democratic Party.” The image that draws up for many are the shadowy party figures, which for both major parties are largely wealthy White donors. In light of his debate performance, during which Webb insisted that race was not a determining factor for who had “no voice in the corridors of power,” it seems that Webb may in fact be implying that his racially-charged policy perspectives are what he sees as disqualifying. That explains his hostility not only to a Democratic donor class he views as never having given him a shot, but also what he called the Party’s “nominating base” – by which he seems to mean the voters of color and perhaps White voters too who refused to support someone with his perspectives on those issues.

When he spoke during the debate so dismissively of the many ways that race has contributed to limiting or denying people access to the political process, I tweeted:

Webb’s inconsistent relationship with both the Democratic and Republican parties are admittedly a bit different than the standard Dixiecrat history, but he serves as a sort of example for how those politics have fallen out of the Democratic fold. (What’s more, he seems quite comfortable adopting historical talking points of the Dixiecrat movement.) Once central to that Party’s coalition, what he obliquely refers to as its “traditional message” is no longer a key part of it. “I wish that I could see it” return or remain central, he said today, while noting that he might no longer identify as a Democrat.

The fear, which Webb himself helps spread, is that redistribution of power along racial lines will eclipse a more general redistribution of wealth and power. At its core, his understanding of this society seems fixed around the belief that race has never categorically shaped groups’ ability to politically engage. As a result, anti-racism is not a welcome addition to anti-poverty politics but a distraction from them. After his debate insistence on the irrelevance of race, he made his case that true disenfranchisement was actually felt by the “struggling whites like the families in the Appalachian mountains”. One implication that raises is that supposedly entirely empowered people of color have too much power within the Democratic Party and are shaping policy in a way specifically leaving some White people in poverty. To be frank, this makes no sense as a point made on a stage with, worryingly, only White candidates. What’s more, a few podiums away, Bernie Sanders offers both more substantive anti-poverty politics and at least some recognition of the ways race continues to devalue and deprive entire communities.

In short, the primary consistency in these politics is the sleight of hand. We have to subordinate anti-racism to White supremacist anti-poverty politics, because of a fear with literally no factual basis. We have to abandon advancing party-specific policies in favor of a post-partisan utopia that we simply will wish into existence. For a candidate who seems genuinely unhappy that no one flocked to his camp, he doesn’t seem to know how to offer people something that isn’t snake oil. Perhaps this is taking the metaphor too far, but that would explain why Webb has had to shed his skin and transform first from Reaganite to anti-Bush Democrat and seemingly now into an independent.

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2016: the mixed bag

As I mentioned yesterday, enacting significant reform on a laundry list of issues is something that the Democratic Party by its very nature is going to have trouble doing. At an absolute minimum, it’s something they will need to do at the least by controlling three national centers of power: the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House. With that in mind, many of the vague predictions you can make this early about how the major parties will do in the coming 2016 election have found reason for the Democrats to celebrate. Rachel Maddow, admittedly an often optimistic voice, noted that as a presidential election year turnout will likely be higher, favoring the Democrats in down ticket races. What’s more, elections in the Senate are built around six-year terms, so a number of the seats that Republicans have to defend within that body will be freshmen elected in the unusually Republican-favoring midterms in 2010.

Here’s a bit of a rundown of why in spite of that Democrats shouldn’t rest on their laurels, so to speak, and need to be extremely organized if they want the chance to do something more than the waiting game that the Obama presidency has unfortunately become.

What goes around comes around

The rhythms to Senate elections do favor the Democrats in the coming election in a way that they largely haven’t in other recent elections. In 2014, they had to maintain the seats they won in 2008 which coincided with high turnout for even a presidential election year, but during a midterm and with that sort of a turnout. In 2012, the Democrats were largely defending their unusual gains from the 2006 midterms. In 2010, they saw one of the most quintessentially midterm-esque elections in modern US politics. 2008 is in many ways the closest model to what might happen in 2016.

That year was a reelection year for the class of Senators who had benefited from in the shellacking the Democrats took in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Six years later, they faced a broad rejection of the Republican military, economic, and political policy planks. All their strengths had become weaknesses which the Democrats could and did use against them. With growing interest in a proactive economic populism and lingering distaste for Republican military policy, Republican senators elected in 2010 might prove similarly vulnerable in 2016.

That said, these six year patterns are just that – patterns. 2016 might usher in a new class of Democrats but within a scant two years it will be the Democratic members elected in 2012 that will be vulnerable in yet another midterm election with most likely the lower turnout that favors Republicans. Maybe 2018 won’t be 2010, but that’s a risk that the Democrats are going to have to consider when working with whatever they can get after the coming election. Any majority or plurality they can get in the Senate comes with a ticking clock.

The game is rigged

What’s more, it’s not clear what numerically the Democrats could get in the Senate. They current sit at 44 seats, with ten of those seats up for election. The majority of those will be in both relatively uncontested general elections for the Democrats and with sitting incumbents – a solid six of the ten. California will be an odd one out in that the general election is highly likely to go to the Democrats, but they will be paying special attention to the fielding of a new candidate to replace the retiring Barbara Boxer. On the other hand, Colorado will probably be a hard fight, but one with a sitting Democratic incumbent, Michael Bennet. Since he previously pulled off a narrow victory in 2010, it will likely be harder for the Republicans to unseat him than many might think. Nevada and Maryland will see their sitting Democratic Senators replaced, although given that it is a presidential election year, the Democrats have reason to be optimistic about both those elections as well.

That’s all good news, but it still only leaves them with back where they started, with 44 seats. There’s other reasons to be optimistic, as the sitting Republicans in much of the Midwest (particularly Illinois) have made a number of blunders that the Democrats will likely be able to exploit. That said, the Senate is inherently biased towards Republicans given the way it allots representation, the way modern US’s population is distributed, and the way political parties have targeted different groups. By design, the Senate divvies out representation by state, awarding lower population states with equal representation to more populous ones. The US has steadily become a more urban nation, as a growing portion of the population lives in metropolitan areas in just a handful of states. Meanwhile, the Republican party has increasingly become the party of rural voters and the Democrats the party of urban voters, for a number of reasons.

pop density dem gopFrom here.

Independent of that, whichever party has received the most voters for their Senatorial candidates nationally tends to win upwards of sixty percent of the available seats. But, because of those effects, those wins aren’t rewarded equally. The Republican Party in 2010 received a plurality, not an outright majority, of votes for Senate candidates and still received that lion’s share of the available seats. In 2014, the Republicans also pulled in the most votes, and that time with an actual majority of votes cast for that type of candidate. Still, it was a smaller lead than the Democrats had in 2008, and yet they received more seats. With the country’s population tightly concentrated in a few urban areas, geographically larger rural areas hold disproportionate political power.

This is a small but consistent force in the Senate. If Democrats in 2008 had received even an equal proportion of seats as Republicans did in 2014 for a smaller lead in overall electoral returns, they would have gained 15 not 12 seats. That would have securely landed them above the sixty vote filibuster threshhold. The dramatics necessary to appease independent Joe Lieberman wouldn’t have been necessary, the death of Senator Ted Kennedy in office wouldn’t have had quite the same national implications, and the demands of centrist Democrats would have been mitigated. The structure of the Senate works against Democrats in general, particularly as it comes to acting on their returns.

Just end the filibuster, then the Democrats will have a usable majority!


More seriously, the filibuster is something that the Democratic leadership has previously made it quite clear that they’re unwilling to part with. That’s because the pendulum of Senate elections always swings back, making it an annoyance when you’re the majority but a valuable bulwark when you’re the minority. Because of how Republicans stand to benefit more easily from favorable years, the Democrats are especially reluctant to part with the filibuster. As I noted yesterday, the Democrats are a political party, and not one of the few ones that are necessarily committed to radically transforming the political reality of the country they live in (and even those are often hesitant to do certain reforms). The filibuster has evolved out of different procedural elements to the system that the Democrats quite obviously work within. It’s a part of them and they are a part of it, so they’re not terribly likely to dismantle it.

That said, maybe this time will be different. The Democrats are facing a small but persistent challenge from parts of their base to get certain things through the Senate. They have 41 basically guaranteed seats, three that they are likely to retain, two or three they are likely to gain this year, and another two or three they might just pull off under the right circumstances. That leaves them with at most around 50 seats. Assuming they keep the White House (which is probable), that would give them a voting majority in the Senate, but not one that’s filibuster proof. Maybe that would change things.

So we’ll see if they can decide to brave the possible storms in 2018 and 2022 in order to do something in 2017. A likely outcome, however, is that the Democrats look at their probably slim gains and play it safe and keep the filibuster on for the time being. They might not even make it over the finish line to a filibuster-able majority for that matter, in which case the filibuster would still be a lifeline for them in a Republican-majority Senate.

What about the House then, the People’s Chamber?

The lower congressional house is in many ways a body that is less wired for the type of political party the Republicans have mutated into. You can’t win a fraction of the votes in a largely rural area that another person did in a vastly more diverse state and yet have the same administrative and political power. Everyone has more or less the same number of constituents (710,767 as of 2010 redistricting) and differences in power are largely created by either individual ability or the privileges divided up among those in the ruling, majority party. What’s more, all representatives are up for election every year on a two-year cycle, leaving none of the electoral wave patterns built into the Senate.

Here’s the problem for the Democrats though: the House is horrifyingly gerrymandered. Others have crunched the state-specific numbers, but on a national scale, the 2012 House Elections showed the power inherent in choosing the congressional districts’ boundaries. Collectively, the Democrats had a 1.30% lead in aggregate election returns, which translated into a 7.49% lead in sitting representatives for Republicans. Since 2008 that is the only national election in either the House or the Senate where the cumulative party winner was mismatched with which representatives were seated. What 2016 is going to show is whether that was a fluke or the new normal.

The boundaries drawn after the 2010 census were largely done at the state level by Republicans elected in that unusual year, and according to procedural norms they’ll be with us until the next census in 2020. The 2012 House elections are precisely the circumstances in which a new trend would become visible that otherwise would blend into the background. At the Senate level, lower turnout and the structural advantages to rurally based parties disguise the effects. In midterm election years, a similar effect happens in the House, obscuring the level of gerrymandering. 2012 might just have demonstrated what Democrats need to expect for the coming years – a protracted battle for a representational majority even with a clear (if sometimes small) majority of votes. The Republican House is probably here to stay for a long time.

So there’s no hope?

The issue here is not that the Democrats have no meaningful opportunities in this election and other upcoming ones. The point is that if the Democrats want to actual use electoral power to create and change policies and otherwise alter the political realities in this country, they have to take the opportunities they have for that. As I’ve mentioned before that goes against the very nature of their party as an organization, and anyone watching has seen that dynamic play out in the recent years.

Recently, there was a decision made to retain the filibuster because they expected to ultimately fall victim to it. There was poor multitasking on issues in the narrow window between 2008 and 2010. There has been little effort to directly confront the gerrymandered situation besides a vague sense of waiting it out. In short, they have chosen to pass up momentary opportunities off of the belief that doing so would guarantee other brief chances available later on. It’s a strategy that stores up moments for later use and at least so far never cashes them out.

The question everyone from everyday registered Democrats to sitting elected party officials need to ask before the adrenaline rush next November is if that strategy makes sense. If it doesn’t, what can they be mindful of needing to do before it’s once again too late?

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What good does it do?

Rhetorically, there were a number of moments in last night’s debate that seem to have captured parts of the liberal imagination. Hillary Clinton appealed to a basic right to bodily autonomy and to make that right accessible with support for Planned Parenthood and related medical providers. Bernie Sanders unequivocally declared that Black Lives Matter. Martin O’Malley almost captured something similar by stating that bigotry had no room in the Democratic Party, but Jim Webb’s own comments throughout the night called that belief in such a categorical progressiveness into question. Even in that case, Webb’s presence highlighted his out-of-place status in the broader Democratic Party. As Jamelle Bouie put it:

In short, Webb being there only underscored the stated commitments to addressing racial, gendered, and other inequalities. There aren’t really any Dixiecrats anymore. This is what the Democratic Party has become.

So with a tight field of candidates largely competing to be a presidential nominee who could advance that sort of US self image at the highest level in the country, what’s not to love? The Democratic Party has won the popular vote five out of six times in the most recent elections (which translated into four uncontested wins). The Reagan Revolution seems to have been more of a momentary happenstance of White Flight from the Democratic Party that could make the White House an insurmountable Republican fortress.

While White people continue to be a majority of residents of the US, and disproportionately represented in electoral registration and participation, enough didn’t flee the Democratic Party that they and a growing number of voters of color can be a surprisingly effective electoral coalition. It’s tempered by all of the problems inherent in national coalitions – it’s slow-moving, continually renegotiated, and subject to limited radical action – yet it can at least promise to get a lot done and seemingly mean it.

Part of the implied problem there is that there are limits to what any political party can do. Almost by definition, they operate within a standard political process. The closest thing to an alternative are parties like Sinn Féin or historically India’s Congress Party, which are political branches of counter-state forces. The Democratic Party’s origins are rather different from that sort of an organization, and the type of imperial conditions that encourage those types of political parties haven’t existed in the US for several centuries. In the absence of that, a mainstream, gradualist policy-tinkering has become the order of the day.

Even that however is difficult for Democrats to enact on a national scale as the brief window in 2009-2011 showed. As a Party, they held the presidency and majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Healthcare reform debates choked out almost every other reform issue, leaving us with the current situation in which many hallmarks of the Bush era linger – most obviously widespread warfare, indefinite detention centers, and mass surveillance. Deportation actions increased, Guantánamo remains open, and we’re using drones more than ever. Weren’t the Democrats interested in ending all of that? Weren’t there great flowery statements in debates and elsewhere on the campaign trail against those exact things?

There’s a number of other, less intractable factors that could be blamed for that, from fickle Blue Dogs to Filibuster-enabling Joe Lieberman. As much as the Democrats can’t deliver on everything because of the political and electoral system they must work within, there’s also a question of what they can do with a presidency dependent on how well they do in Congress and the states. Tomorrow and later this week I’ll take a look at the prospects of the Democratic Party in down ticket races and what they could potentially make of 2016.

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Police unions or Black lives: what kind of Democratic Party will this be?

Trigger warning: anti-Black racism, police violence, gun violence mention

Tonight’s Democratic Presidential Primary debate, which I’ll be liveblogging here, is an opportunity for observation. The three major candidates – former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, sitting Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley – have all had various reactions and responses to the many different populist and grassroots political demands made in both the general electorate and within the Democratic Party itself over the past couple of years. While they discuss those and other issues on stage next to each other, something of a contest is unofficially being held, to see what ideas “win” the debate, in terms of both being highly visible and being effectively asserted.

With all three of those candidates having at least once put their foot in their mouth on the current popular discussion around anti-Black racism and police violence, one thing being measured tonight is whether (and if so, how) will they pick apart the increasingly elaborate falsehoods surrounding the police forces in the US as both worryingly vulnerable. The past several months have seen a prominent return of forms of violence sadly familiar to Black communities in this country, with the killings of among others Sandra Bland in police custody.

That violence cuts to the core of the modern Democratic Party, which arguably arose out of Fannie Lou Hamer’s demand for civil rights and political agency at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. She recounted a part of her personal history – from facing housing and employment discrimination for attempting to register to vote to its ultimate conclusion of her being violently beaten in a jail cell for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time while Black. Her experiences were sadly typical for her time and have continued into the modern day with deaths like Bland’s. The modern Democratic Party has been profoundly shaped by her testimony, so it is key to ask tonight how each of those candidates carry forward the lessons she asked the people in this country to learn.

Police force members and others aligned with them have sought to obscure that reality, that those specific forms of violence are an on-going problem. Recently, a blatant misinformation campaign of sorts has been launched – misrepresenting the risks of police work and decrying that the police are under excessive surveillance on the job. The numbers are publicly accessible, however, and paint a different picture of slowly but steadily declining non-accidental deaths for officers who are on the job (2003 and 2008 were the only Bush era years with fewer than 50 gunfire deaths, while only 2010 and 2011 have had more than 50 gunfire deaths during the Obama era). The talk surrounding increasing oversight on police conduct has been born out of incidental recordings – sometimes those used to observe other people who are on the job – finding astounding discrepancies between police eyewitness and video testimony.

blm caravan Los AngelesA sign from a Los Angeles #BlackLivesMatter affiliated protest on October 10, from here.

Since Fannie Lou Hamer’s challenge to the Democratic Party, it has become increasingly common outside of Black communities to associate the police and their political pressures with the Republican Party. That’s a mistake, as they are a unionized portion of the public sector workforce. Like most such groups, they do skew towards the Democrats – and donation records (available only in aggregate between police and firefighter groups) show virtually all of their top recipients being Democratic Party members. With the Republican Party making an effort to show that those two unionized groups won’t face the same degree and forms of hostility under their governance as other public sector unions and a large chunk of Democrat-leaning constituencies increasingly critical of the broader system of policing in this country, that is threatening to change. If Democratic candidates want to maintain their edge with that specific type of union, they will likely have to signal their investment in the existing police force tonight. Police force members and organizers will be tuning in and want to see the Democratic candidates side with them over their critics.

In many politically-minded disciplines, it’s increasingly common to find people discussing power as at least in part the ability “to define reality” in the sense of psychologically organizing and labeling the complex world we all share. People with power – which can mean anything from people simply with certain communal or personal identities that are privileged as well as individually empowered people, like major presidential contenders – play a key role in declaring what is real. What the candidates tonight have is inherently a moment in which they have to pick a side in a contest for policy control in the Democratic Party and make it clear how they see the world (and in the process, influence how people like you and me can respond to their rhetoric and their policies). Tonight we will see what choices they make, among other things in terms of embracing, ignoring, or rejecting false ideas that some people are desperate to popularize about the police.

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Unalike in nature

If you don’t already give Podcast for America the periodic listen, allow me to recommend it. It’s exactly the biting, often satirical look at US politics from Mark Leibovich, Annie Lowrey, and Alex Wagner that you wish you could simply switch on the television or open a newspaper and read from them and others. Instead, if thrives in the wilds of soundcloud and iTunes where you little differences (like swearing) can add up to more than just a change of tone, but also a entirely different type of discussion.

Of course, like most media that I cover on here, there’s a criticism that I have. It’s a particular one that grows out of something Alex Wagner said in the most recent episode:

I actually was thinking as we were talking about Trump’s infrastructure how nobody has- Everyone questions the seriousness of Biden’s potential bid because there is like, ‘Does he have the money or does he have the support? Does he have the network?’ Nobody questions it when it’s Donald Trump! Certainly the money isn’t an issue for Trump, but you know, neither one- they basically have the same amount of campaign infrastructure at this point, which is to say, none at all. And yet, that seems to be a liability for Biden in a way that it is not at all for Trump.

The issue I have with this is that there’s an assumption that a presidential campaign is going to have the same relationship to traditional campaigning regardless of which major party is running it. Increasingly, people have recognized that there isn’t a “pivot” faction in US politics, or at least as much of one as most people believe there is. Voters for the most part don’t suddenly vote against the party they had favored two years before. Instead, there are two radically different electorates – one of which votes in most elections and broader one usually only mobilized in years with presidential contests. Voters are fairly consistent, it’s turnout that’s not.

The two major parties increasingly represent factions that skew towards one of those ends of the same spectrum of voting behavior. That leaves us with conditions where Democratic candidates have won the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections, but both the House and Senate are increasingly dominated by Republican elected officials. In both of those bodies, there’s a Democratic minority largely sustained by “coattails” that might be entirely their own earned votes, just only in the years when their types of voter turns out.

Of course, these diverging interests in what type of electorate votes impact policy as well. The Democrats have slowly but steadily come out in favor of increasing accessibility for voters transparency within the voting process, and seem poised in the coming years to question certain on-going forms of disenfranchisement – namely for convicted felons and the incarcerated. The Republicans have at the same time begun pushing tighter restrictions on voters to prevent voter fraud and sought to limit the number of hours in which votes can be cast. Both are seeking to make the elections that have a harder time winning more like the ones that they find easier, by broadening or shrinking voter turnout.

More than diverging takes on electoral regulation, there are also increasingly distinct approaches within campaigns themselves. Within both parties, large numbers of supporters are anxious over the potentially biasing effects of large political donations, now enabled by the Supreme Court. The Republican front-runner, Donald Trump, has emphasized that he doesn’t need those donations because he can fund himself, while surging Democratic contender Bernie Sanders has instead highlighted how many of his contributions come from smaller donors.

That perpetuates the same divide seen in 2012 between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney – with smaller donations largely going to Obama and sizable ones largely to Romney. Those donations are made in a broader campaign context. Large donations come with capturing the attention of specific donors, usually in highly specialized events. Smaller donations come from more general appearances, often while delivering iconic stump speeches. Think of Obama’s rallies versus Romney’s behind-closed-doors meetings. A similar divide is already rearing its head in the primaries this year, as Sanders calls for more primary debates – highly public moments in which he can make his case to a large audience – while Trump for a significant amount of time was basically just doing phone interviews from his own apartment.

Joe Biden might not hit the same populist note as Sanders, if he does run, but he would need to compete with that type of a campaign, tailored to a general audience that needs to directly support you for you to succeed in the election. In short, as a Democrat, he would need a ground game, a popular campaign, and other hallmarks that are being asked of his (for now) hypothetical run. Alex Wagner goes on from the part I quoted to note that Trump’s front-runner status proves that at least for now he may not need the typical campaign apparatus, and that’s because of what the Republican Party has, permitted by the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act and ruling on Citizens United, evolved into an electoral entity that doesn’t seek out popular support, but the financial and political endorsement of a small minority.

To be fully fair to Wagner, I doubt that this is the reasoning behind asking different questions of Trump’s current and Biden’s possible campaign. Still, when it comes to the general election, there should be different standards applied to Biden because he would run an utterly different type of campaign from Trump or any other Republican.

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Stuff Happens

Trigger warning: gun violence, war, terrorism, islamophobia

By now, Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign has seemingly hit a stumbling block that while not necessarily disqualifying in the Republican Primary, is likely to capsize him in the general 2016 election if he becomes the Republican nominee. If you’re unaware, when asked for his thoughts on the recent shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, he shrugged off the loss of life, saying, “Stuff happens.

At the risk of sounding as oblivious to the recent pain as him, he is technically right. Miseries happen. Tragedies happen. Violent events happen. The issue here though isn’t that though, it’s what he meant by saying that. “Stuff happens” is what people say not to recognize pain and problems but to dismiss them. His implicit argument is that nothing can be done about these types of mass shooting incidents, which happen in this country at nearly a rate of once a day. His calculated political decision not to care about this specific form of violence is disguised by the powerlessness that “stuff happens” implies. He’s making a choice not to care, and presenting it as all he can do.

That’s not how he himself has spoken in the Republican Primary on all forms of violence.

“I don’t know if you remember, Donald- Do you remember the rubble?”

Jeb Bush is entirely capable of caring about the loss of life and the experience of violence – and not just in a standard Republican tone in a hypocritical call for new restrictions on abortion. He can see events of extreme, pseudo-militaristic violence, and say this is unacceptable and demands an organized, society-wide response. What he does is chooses which tragedies speak to him in that way, an indirect way of selecting the type of society he thinks we should live in.

A tragedy that justifies invasions and colonialism-echoing occupations in majority Muslim countries calls for remembering, for recognizing, for sacralizing to achieve those ends. A tragedy like a shooting by an able-bodied, able-minded, straight, cisgender, White man within the US has no parallel usefulness to Jeb Bush within the Republican Primary. If anything, it’s a liability in a worldview that depends on finding the origins of violence (and hence, reasons to strike back) as coming from other groups and striking with different means. What “stuff happens” underscores is not just a callousness to those affected by this most recent incident of gun violence or one of the scores of similar tragedies in these recent years, but a dehumanizing way of approaching any such loss of life, whether disregarded as yet another lamentable thing in the world or hallowed.

“Stuff happens” out of the mouth of Jeb Bush or anyone else who has spoken about 9/11 and other tragedies in such mournful terms makes clear that the speaker asks themselves a question after every catastrophe: what can I gain from this? Their sorrow is not a fully authentic emotional response, but a carefully chosen one, selected because of what it could bring about in the world.

Credit to the featured image goes to here.

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Corbyn and Sanders

Jeremy Corbyn’s successful election as opposition leader within the UK Labour Party’s shadow government has caused quite a lot of buzz within the broader anglophone political world. In that highly visible position he will be the one to detail Labour’s rhetorical and policy alternatives to the current conservative UK government. As arguably the most liberal person running a plausible campaign for the position, this suggests the possibility of a bold turn left within the Labour Party and arguably many centers of non-right political power in the UK. With Sanders, a registered independent and self-described socialist, running in the Democratic Presidential Primary in the US and similar rumblings within Canadian politics it seems as though further left political figures are coming out of the woodwork around the world, but especially in English-speaking circles.

These changes have not been without their critics of course, as many have decried the these comparatively leftist politicians are “unserious” or “unreasonable” compared to center-left figures they threaten to replace. As Matt Bruenig asked last week, there’s a structural question that raises: what exactly are further left politicians supposed to do? In both the party leadership elections within UK parties and in the presidential primaries and generals in the US, the systems offer only two choices for them: to compete within the center-left in in-party elections or outright against it as a separate party. In either case, they are inevitably challenging the center-left for control of policy, and face criticism for jeopardizing the advancement of a center-left alternative. It’s presented as a kind of making the perfect the enemy of the good by the center left, but as a necessary test of a careful approach’s merits by those to the further left.

Of course, as Bruenig points out, that push-and-pull between gradualism and radicalism within a broader left coalition assumes that the center-left and left share common goals. Ultimately politicians like Sanders and Corbyn want to entirely restructure society in a way that dramatically recontextualizes or even overhauls the procedures under which they compete with more centrist candidates. Is that true of their rivals?

bernie sanders revolutionFrom here.

Beyond these issues of political process, it seems relevant to ask what counts as “reasonable”. The comparatively moderate portions of left wing coalitions treat it as a self evident truth that they’re more electable and realistic. Both the US and UK are facing epidemic levels of disengagement. It’s unsurprising that that’s the case given how parties from center-left on towards the right have largely failed to tackle some of the most systemic difficulties for the average person – global climate change, the economic downturn, and globalization. As some have pointed out, its specifically the poor who are most likely to disengage from electoral politics, and that’s at least in part because there are few to no parties or major figures addressing their concerns with viable solutions.

Arguably the recent political success of comparatively far right politics in both the US and UK (and many other countries) have demonstrated the power that rightwing parties can harness simply by offering a response to those problems, not even necessarily a logical or actionable one. In general, lower income voters still skew towards left-center parties, but that exists within a general vacuum of more leftist alternatives.

An electoral landscape shaken up by higher rates of participation would drive political discussion most likely towards the left, but that would threaten the fragile consensus that has allowed the center-left to become so powerful. Corbyn and Sanders are essentially moderate compared to the politicians who might follow them if they’re able to enact policies that would enable greater political participation. The need to prevent that sort of constituency “escape” to the left is a reason for the center-left to make common cause with the center and right and frame themselves as an end-point of reasonableness even if that reinforces on a rightwing view of the broader political world and discourages leftwing activism. Power is more important than change, for some.

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One bird with one stone

Trigger warning: racism, electoral discrimination

I have been sick most of this week and sadly stuck inside at home as a result. Probably the only good thing to come out of that, however, was that I was able to directly participate in a twitter conversation held by the organizers for VoterVOX on Tuesday. Hosted on that group’s hashtag, they had a discussion about, as they put it – creating “a polyglot democracy” through community-centered translation services. Part fundraising drive, part introduction of the new foundation, and part overture about the coming struggle to define and structure the 2016 US elections, there were a lot of interesting hints about what to expect to see more of.

One of the most enlightening stories shared in the twitter conversation was one by Sabrina Hersi Issa, who has had VoterVOX widely credited as her brainchild more than anyone else’s. She explained-

An essential and defining part of VoterVOX is that it’s a response to a type of racism built into the structure of US democracy. While there’s linguistic inequalities experienced by basically all people whose first or most comfortable language isn’t English, VoterVOX is designed to increase and improve participation for people who specifically speak languages originally spoken in Asian and Pacific Islander communities. As pointed out in the conversation and on VoterVOX’s fundraising page, people of Asian ancestry are one of the fastest growing demographics in a number of key states – Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina. With the looming 2016 elections, VoterVOX is poised to address the shared needs of a diverse set of communities who may have quietly become a hugely important voting bloc.

Of course, there is a broader context here, as 2016 is likely to be a distinct electoral terrain for people of color. The protections of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) have come under fire, and the Supreme Court dismantled the standards of pre-clearance (which have long been a barrier to racial electoral discrimination). VoterVOX’s emphasis on specific forms of linguistic disenfranchisement seeks to expand the arsenal against racial inequality at the polls even while a broader protection for marginalized communities has been lost – which was an active force in among other states, Arizona and Georgia. The capacity of indigenous communities to use VoterVOX remains to be seen, as will whether it can create a political environment that reinforces the rights of largely English- or Spanish-speaking Black and Latin@ communities. The origins of VoterVOX are in different communities than those, and it has been shaped by those communities’ needs.

That said, a two-front fight of combating both access being compromised by linguistic discrimination and other attempts to discriminate against communities of color could be quite effective. That could challenge the types of electoral discrimination resurrected by the gutted VRA while also addressing the more subtle and namely linguistic-based forms that flourished even under pre-clearance. In short, there are two different fights for meaningful access to the polls for communities of color in the US as anxieties around the 2016 elections build. VoterVOX is an innovative attempt to tackle one of them, but only one of them. Its specialization means that it will be very effective at what its designed to do, but it also means that it’s only meant to address one of them.

Full disclosure, I am in the process of donating to VoterVOX myself. If you are similarly interested, here is their IndieGoGo page, which is where the featured image for this article is from.

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The “it” issue

Trigger warning: abortion

It’s back. Abortion, the thorny intersection of bodily autonomy and medical care, is rising to prominence again as a defining political issue in US politics and specifically in the coming 2016 elections. Today, the Center for Reproductive Rights filed a court case with the US Supreme Court to strike down a Texan law, designed to make operating a medical center that provides abortions legally all but impossible. One potential outcome of the case, if taken up by the Supreme Court, is an end to the widespread use of these laws in many states to reduce the number of centers offering abortion. This wasn’t merely a routine legal conflict, however, but a deliberate and public first shot in the coming political and legal fight over rights and access to abortion and related medical services. After all, the Center for Reproductive Rights drew up an image (presumably ahead of the filing) which asks people to share the news and image on Facebook:

center for reprorights image 9-3From here.

It’s not just those in favor of maintaining or expanding reproductive rights and their accessibility that are spoiling for a fight. Also today, the Family Research Council sent out their semi-daily “Insider’s Guide to Pro-Family News” which highlighted a post they had published on their blog yesterday. It continues the anti-abortion argument that ending federal support for Planned Parenthood’s broader organization wouldn’t necessarily affect access to medical care by noting the prevalence of Federally Qualified Health Centers and other locations where non-abortion parts of health care are available in many areas largely neglected by the US’s broader health system. It notes one fact however: that these clinics can more or less match Planned Parenthood in access to all but one federally-guaranteed medical procedure – abortion. The implicit message is clear, that that’s not a medical procedure that needs to be accessible.

Unlike other recent versions of this fight, the ability to access and the right to have an abortion are inescapably central to the current political debate. While prior discussions have been derailed from arguments over the use of birth control to defenses of the other uses of that for hormonal regulation and other medical needs, what is being zeroed in on by both sides in the on-going discussion is how directly threatened access to abortion is. This is the byproduct of a curious dualism in US politics. The right to an abortion is indisputably provided for, yet the details of accessibility of that medical procedure are hardly an afterthought. Anti-abortion activism has exploited that discrepancy for years – from demanding that no federal funds be used to directly finance abortion to the setting up of countless “crisis pregnancy centers” and picket lines. There is an organized movement in the US to make abortion financially, physically, and now legally difficult to access. In fact, the increasing inclusion of specifically anti-abortion clinics among federally-funded clinics is a key part of that effort, as a recent Vice documentary showed:

That is part and parcel with the Family Research Council’s response, down to the potential inclusion of those types of clinics among alternative medical providers to Planned Parenthood. What has been constructed over the years is an incredibly well distributed medical care system, within which it’s entirely possible to ask for an abortion but nightmarishly Kafkaesque to actually find a provider. With that continuing abuse of the split hairs between “theoretical right” and “accessible right”, the implicit argument – about whether there is a right to abortion being accessible – is now advancing to a highly visible court battle. What’s more, that’s coming to the fore just as a congress looking for a contentious issue to use in the looming government shutdown, and following that a federal election. Get ready to talk about abortion because it’s going to be inescapable while the US is forced to consider whether that division between the right to an abortion and the right to access an abortion can stand the test of time.

The featured image for this article is Debra Sweet’s image of an unnamed pro-choice protester in 2012, viewable here.

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Can’t look away

TW: racism, sexism, rape apologetics, classism

Nick Gillespie’s recent article in the Washington Post which attempts to “debunk” popular myths about Libertarians is absolutely fascinating, in much the way a dramatic car accident or Roland Emmerich disaster flick can hold your attention longer than you want it to.

(All Gillespie needs is a fedora to complete his ensemble, from here.)

He starts with a muddled point that Libertarians aren’t “the hippies of the right” (whatever that even means) because there’s a lot of them according to a poll put out by an avowedly Libertarian media outlet (Reason, which Gillespie edits). The conservative framing here should be obvious: hippies are recently formed and marginal agitators who ruin everything, which Libertarians can’t be compared to because they’re historied (at least for a few more decades by Gillespie’s odd count) and central to the political culture in the US.

Both Gillespie’s logic for classifying assorted movements from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as “libertarian” and the rational behind his magazine’s polling are the same – that Libertarianism is semantically devoid outside of a distaste for government policy (quirkily defined). He argues that libertarianism wasn’t a strange reaction to communism (which others have argued), but instead rooted in movements within the United States against formal imperialist structures over the proceeding century.

That libertarians arguably only oppose government-run imperialism today when it’s convenient to them is one quibble, but it’s also worth noting that disinterest in imperialism is being reduced by Gillespie to disapproval of it when conducted by the government. It’s apparently unthinkable that those liberal movements might be the antecedents to calls for governmental intervention to prevent commercial groups or other organizations from profiting from and reinforcing the conditions left by overt government-run colonialism.

This is revealed in the simplistic questionnaire that Reason used, which merely asks-

“1. ‘The less government the better’; OR, ‘there are more things that government should be doing’.

2. ‘We need a strong government to handle today’s complex economic problems’; OR, ‘People would be better able to handle today’s problems within a free market with less government involvement’.

3. Some people think the government should promote traditional values in our society. Others think the government should not favor any particular set of values. Which comes closer to your own view?”

Occasionally (as the article states) over the years this survey was put out, a question actually pertaining to an issue (only marijuana decriminalization though!) rather than a vague philosophical moral would be asked. A nuanced perspective that governments’ actions are legitimate or unacceptable depending on what those actions are, is apparently by and large anathema to getting the results that 24 percent of US citizens agree with them (compared to 27 with “liberals” and another 27 with “conservatives”).

His other points are poorly strung together, and really amount to two admissions: that libertarianism doesn’t offer much to people of color and women, as well as that libertarians are a contentious political bloc that is already contending with others within the Republican Party for the 2016 presidential nomination. For the former, he only points to opposition to the drug war, support for “school choice”, and the idolization of Ayn Rand (and a few other decades-dead women, none of whom were a part of libertarianism in the past 31 years).

Prominent libertarians quite clearly only want to soften the drug war, namely by reducing the penalization for drugs which like marijuana are commonly used among more affluent Whites. School choice is openly a means of shifting the cost of maintaining de facto segregation from White families on to the government (while also making parochial education more competitive). And do we really need to run down why Ayn Rand isn’t a feminist idol? (Hint: she wanted her audience to excuse rape.)

In the end, Gillespie is left arguing that it’s a myth that “Libertarians are destroying the Republican Party” and yet that the party leadership is “worried about the party’s growing libertarian streak” so much so that Chris Christie (presidential nominee apparent, unless libertarian Rand Paul has his way) called libertarians “dangerous”.

Is it hard to be so very wrong about everything, Mr Gillespie?

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