Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

How money power overrides citizen power

April 10, 2013

This brief TED talk by Lawrence Lessig highlights the power of money in American politics and what a small number of people are able to exercise that power.  I recommend the video, but I don’t think things are going to change until there is a populist movement in this country strong enough to challenge the power and question the assumptions of the elite class.

I think the campaign financing reforms that he suggests are a good first step, although they are not a solution.  The greater problem is the power of an interlocking elite class in government, high finance and giant manufacturing corporations, in which people move back and forth from high level jobs in Washington and Wall Street and everybody in these circles takes it for granted that Social Security and Medicare are a problem that has to be solved.

The great American reform movements of the past—abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the populist and progressive reform movements, the organization of labor unions, the civil rights movement—came from people who did not accept the choices offered by the two major parties, and whose power did not depend on governmental favors.

Hat tip to Daily Kos.

Liberals and the wisdom of conservatism

April 2, 2013

Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, wrote in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion  that good people are divided because liberals and conservatives fail to understand the moral foundations of each others’ values.  Haidt identifies as a liberal, and yet says the conservatives typically have a broader and better understanding than liberals do.

Haidt and his colleagues created what he called a Moral Foundations Questionnaire, which were intended to show how strongly people felt about moral behavior in five categories: (1) Care vs. harm, (2) Fairness vs. cheating, (3) Loyalty vs. betrayal, (4) Authority vs. subversion, and (5) Sanctity vs. degradation.  Later they added (6) Liberty vs. oppression.

righteous.mindThey found that self-identified liberals and progressives cared most about Care, a lot about Liberty, some about Fairness and very little about anything else.  Conservatives, on the other hand, cared about all six Moral Foundations in roughly equal measure.  Libertarians, who don’t fall into either category, called most about Liberty, a lot about Fairness and very little about anything else.

Haidt said that while American liberals care about individuals and their welfare, American conservatives balance this with concern for the virtues necessary to uphold social order.  You don’t help the bees by destroying the hive, he said.  He said libertarians are even more limited; they are liberals without bleeding hearts.

When conservatives were asked to fill out questionnaires based on what they thought a typical liberal would think, they were reasonably accurate.  But when liberals were asked to put themselves in the place of a typical conservative, they failed utterly.   That finding startled me, and I wonder how many Fox News and Rush Limbaugh fans were included in the survey.

But his basic point is correct.  The liberal virtues of freedom, reason and tolerance can be practiced only in a stable society, and a stable society requires the conservative virtues of duty, authority and tradition.

Just as liberals are outliers within American society, Haidt wrote, Americans are outliers among the people of the world.  Americans value the well-being of the individual over all else.  Most other cultures set a higher value on community and divinity.   Haidt became aware of this on a visit to India, where he came to appreciate the virtues of a hierarchical, tightly-knit society in which people weren’t treated equally or even justly, but everyone had a place in society with its duties.

He cited an article on cross-cultural comparisons by Joe Heinrich, Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayen, which coined the acronym WEIRD—Westernized, educated, individualistic, rich and democratic—to define what sets Americans apart from the rest of the world.

Haidt participated with Brazilian psychologists in a survey of moral values of rich and poor people in Recife and Porto Alegre, Brazil, and in Philadelphia.  Interestingly, they found that the richer and more educated Brazilians and Americans had more in common with each other than they did with the poor and working-class people of their own countries.  The poor people thought breaking rules was wrong regardless of circumstance, while the educated people said that it depended on whether breaking the rule did any harm.

I wish Haidt had followed up on that finding.  What it suggests is that so-called WEIRD values are a natural consequence of wealth and education.  I would like to believe that liberalism represents the direction of human progress, rather than a fair-weather philosophy that goes overboard in adversity.

Click on YourMorals.Org to take Jonathan Haidt’s Morality Quiz

Click on Of Freedom and Fairness for Haidt’s article in Democracy Journal about the current political situation.

Click on Why Americans Are the Weirdest People in the World for a feature article about Joe Heinrich, Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayen and their cross-cultural research.

Click on The Knowns and the Unknowns for a criticism of Haidt’s philosophical assumptions by John Gray in The New Republic.

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How redistricting foils majority rule

April 1, 2013

The first two charts below show how Republicans used redistricting to tilt election results in Michigan.

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The two charts are in an excellent series of articles by Bloomberg News on how gerrymandering enables Republicans to win a majority of House of Representatives seats even in states where they get a minority of the votes.   The concluding article proposed a solution, a non-partisan commission to draw election districts, as was done in California under Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Click on the following links to read the articles.

Republicans Foil What Majority Wants By Gerrymandering

Republicans Win Congress as Democrats Get Most Votes

California Nonpartisan Districting Ousts Life Incumbents

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Conservatives analyze the election’s meaning

November 20, 2012

Click on The Liberal Gloat for Ross Douthat’s argument that Democratic victories in the current election reflect social and economic problems for which liberals lack good answers.

Click on The Insecurity Election for Paul Krugman’s rebuttal.

Hat tip to Marginal Revolution.

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Another problem with the electoral college

November 10, 2012

The brilliant statistical election analyst, Nate Silver, pointed out that if Mitt Romney had won the popular vote by as big a margin as Barack Obama did, he would still have lost the electoral vote, provided the distribution of his vote among the states was the same as it was.

Silver-Nate-artSilver said Romney would have had to win by three percentage points—more than any Republican since George H.W. Bush in 1988—in order to win the electoral vote.  Moreover, Silver said, the Democratic advantage in the electoral vote is likely to persist for the next few elections.

I’m of the opinion that the Presidential candidate who gets a majority of the votes is the one who ought to be declared the winner.  I’m aware that the rules are different, and I don’t blame anybody for playing by those rules, but I think the rules should be changed.

Besides being more fair and just, an election by popular vote would dilute the influence of voter suppression on the Presidential election.  Voter suppression matters most when, as in Florida in 2000, a small number of votes more or less than tip the electoral votes of a big state.

Click on As Nation and Parties Change, Republicans Are At an Electoral College Disadvantage for Nate Silver’s full report in his FiveThirtyEight column.

Click on National Popular Vote for a plan for reforming the Electoral College.

Gerrymandered Congress vs. majority rule

November 10, 2012

During the 2012 congressional elections, Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives received a majority of the total popular vote, but Republicans retained their substantial majority of seats in the House of Representatives.

cult mapHow is this possible?  The main reason is gerrymandering — drawing of congressional district boundaries so as to give one party an advantage.  Republicans and Democrats both do it.  What’s possibly the weirdest district in the United States—Maryland’s third—was drawn to benefit a Democratic incumbent.  But at the present time it is Republican gerrymandering that has skewed the congressional election results the most.

Another factor is the creation of districts in which minority groups are in the majority, so as to make sure minorities are represented in Congress.  This means African-American and Hispanic voters, most of whom usually vote Democratic, are concentrated in just a few districts.   The Democratic Party would be better off if African-Americans and Hispanic voters were distributed over more districts, where their votes could be combined with the votes of non-Hispanic white liberals.

To my mind, this is just as bad as a Presidential election in which one candidate gets a majority of the popular vote, but another gets a majority of the electoral vote.

gerrymander067It will be hard to correct his on the state level.  No party that is in power will voluntarily reduce its chances of winning elected office.  The answer will have to be a grass-roots movement to amend state constitutions to allow for non-partisan commissions and court review of district boundaries, based on objective criteria for compactness and respect for historic jurisdictional boundaries.  You probably could program a computer to draw up congressional districts, and do a better job than now.

Until the gerrymandering problem is addressed, I think it would be a bad idea to change Electoral College representation as as Maine and Nebraska have done so that all but two electors are chosen by congressional district [1] instead of statewide.  If that had been in effect, Mitt Romney would have carried Pennsylvania and Ohio even though Barack Obama won a majority of the popular vote there.

Click on Why Americans Actually Voted for a Democratic House for an explanation of how gerrymandering distorted the 2012 election result.

Click on Narrowing In on Absurd Gerrymanders for an explanation of how GIS software is used to gerrymander congressional districts, and how it could be used to create fair districts.

Click on The Redistricting Game for a report on a computer game that shows how gerrymandering works.

Click on America’s Most Gerrymandered Congressional District for background on Maryland’s Third District.

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The Democratic and Republican coalitions

November 8, 2012

Dems-and-repubs

This chart from the New York Times shows the support of various demographic groups to the Democratic and Republican Presidential candidates in 2004, 2008 and 2012.  Barack Obama got more support from most groups in 2008 than John Kerry did in 2004.  Obama’s support decreased in 2012, but remained strong enough to win.

The big exceptions were Obama’s surge of support among Hispanic and Asian-American voters.  Republicans ought to be asking themselves why this is.  Hispanic culture is based on respect for church, family and work, which are all values that conservatives affirm.

This is a highly informative chart, and an effective use of graphics to present statistical information.

Hat tip to The Big Picture.

A post-election crisis of legitimacy?

October 29, 2012

Some friends of mine made an argument I hadn’t considered as to why liberals should vote to re-elect President Obama, even if they live in states certain to go for either Obama or Governor Romney.  They fear a crisis of legitimacy, due to Barack Obama winning the electoral vote and Mitt Romney possibly winning the popular vote.   That is a real danger.

Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight poll analysis

Prior to the 2000 election, it looked as if Al Gore might win the electoral vote and George W. Bush the popular vote (you’ll recall the actual result was the reverse).  The Republican Party was geared up to challenge the legitimacy of a Gore victory.  I think the same thing can be expected in the event Obama loses the popular vote, or even wins by an extremely narrow margin.  There will be lawsuits, bogus charges of voting fraud and endless protests.

This danger, arguably, could be lessened by Green Party supporters holding our noses and voting for Obama.

This is a strong argument, but for me a crisis of legitimacy would be a lesser evil than acquiescing in the legitimacy of (1) creation of a secret paramilitary force (described in a recent Washington Post article) with a mission to executive an ever-expanding list of death warrants based on secret criteria, (2) an open-ended policy of expanding undeclared war based on flying killer robots, (3) impunity for torturers, continuation of secret CIA interrogation centers and condition of a policy of rendition, (4) protection of Wall Street bankers from financial failure and prosecution for financial fraud, and (5) the undermining of Social Security, Medicare and other basic safety net programs.

These are all things on which Obama and Romney agree.  The worst thing that President Obama has done is to convince so many American liberals to accept these conditions as normal and as a framework for debating the issues.

In 2008, I voted for a candidate who ran on a slogan of hope and change.  Now, in 2012, I am being asked to re-elect that candidate on the grounds that there is no hope and that change is impossible.

I’m not sure that a Romney administration would be greatly different from a second Obama administration.  Under a Romney administration, liberal Democrats might remember that they are liberals, and would be able to oppose abuses of power without being constrained by party loyalty.

Many Democrats are bitter about Green Party supporters in Florida in 2000, saying that if they had voted for Al Gore instead of Ralph Nader, Gore would have won.  But that was only one factor in Gore’s defeat, and not the major one.  The most important reasons for Gore’s defeat were the blatant bias against him of the Washington press corps, the disenfranchisement of black voters in Florida for bogus reasons, the “white collar riot” of Republican activists to block a  recount, and a partisan Supreme Court decision. Al Gore himself, acting (as he thought) for the greater good of the country, accepted defeat and told the country to move.   I don’t think that Mitt Romney and his supporters will accept defeat so gracefully.

But if President Obama loses the popular vote, or the popular vote is close, it will be his own fault, not my fault.  He would be more popular if he had not gone against public opinion in pro-actively protecting the Wall Street banks against financial failure and criminal prosecution, and in expanding rather than winding down U.S. wars.

Click on President Obama Could Lose The Popular Vote, Win in the Electoral College for an explanation of what could happen.

Click on FiveThirtyEight Blog for Nate Silver’s continuing expert analysis of poll results.

Which is the real Mitt Romney?

October 4, 2012

Which is the real Mitt Romney?  The ruthless Bain Capital financial operator?  The moderate and competent governor of Massachusetts?  The radical right-winger of the Republican primaries?  Or the compassionate conservative of last night’s debate?

Poor President Obama was at a loss, because he was debating the positions Mitt Romney took a couple of weeks ago, not what Romney was saying last night.   I am old enough to remember the New Nixon, supposedly a kinder, gentler version of the previous Richard Nixon.   Now we have a New Romney.   As I did with Nixon, I wonder how long this will last.

Four reasons Romney might still win

September 25, 2012

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Governor Romney’s presidential election campaign is in disarray, and polls show President Obama with a small lead in the popular vote nationwide and the key swing states.  But economist Robert Reich, an Obama supporter, says it’s too soon to count Romney out.  Here’s why.

1. Between now and Election Day come two jobs reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics – October 5 and November 2.  If they’re as bad as the last report, showing only 96,000 jobs added in August (125,000 are needed just to keep up with population growth) and the lowest percentage of employed adults since 1981, Romney’s claim the economy is off track becomes more credible, and Obama’s that it’s on the mend harder to defend.

With gas prices rising, corporate profits shrinking, most of Europe in recession, Japan still a basket case, and the Chinese economy slowing, the upcoming job reports are unlikely to be stellar.

2. Also between now and Election Day are three presidential debates, starting October 3. It’s commonly thought Obama will win them handily but that expectation may be very wrong – and could work against him. Yes, Romney is an automaton – but when the dials are set properly he can give a good imitation of a human engaged in sharp debate. He did well in the Republican primary debates.

Obama, by contrast, can come off slow and ponderous. Recall how he stuttered and stumbled during the 2008 Democratic primary debates. And he hasn’t been in a real-live debate for four years; Romney recently emerged from almost a year of them.

3. During the next seven final weeks of the campaign, the anti-Obama forces will be spending a gigantic amount of money.  Not just the Romney campaign and Romney’s super PACs, but other super PACS aligned with Romney, billionaires spending their own fortunes, and non-profit “social welfare” organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, Karl Rove’s “Crossroads,” and various Koch-brothers political fronts—all will dump hundreds of millions on TV and radio spots, much of it spreading lies and distortions. Some of this money will be devoted to get-out-the-vote drives—to phone banks and door-to-door canvassing to identify favorable voters, and vans to bring them to the polling stations.

It’s an easy bet they’ll far outspend Obama and his allies.  I’ve heard two-to-one.  The race is still close enough that a comparative handful of voters in swing states can make the difference – which means gobs of money used to motivate voters to polling stations can be critical.

4.  As they’ve displayed before, the Republican Party will do whatever it can to win – even if it means disenfranchising certain voters.  To date, 11 states have enacted voter identification laws, all designed by Republican legislatures and governors to dampen Democratic turnout.

The GOP is also encouraging what can only be termed “voter vigilante” groups to “monitor polling stations to prevent fraud” – which means intimidating minorities who have every right to vote.  We can’t know at this point how successful these efforts may be but it’s a dangerous wildcard.  And what about those Diebold voting machines?

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And even if Obama is reelected, more hard work begins after Inauguration Day—when we must push him to be tougher on the Republicans than he was in his first term, and do what the nation needs.

via FOCUS.

Robert Reich appears to be operating on the theory that President Obama’s shortcomings as President are a result of him giving in to his Republican opponents.  But what if Barack Obama’s pro-Wall Street and pro-militarist politics are what he in fact believes in?   Pushing Obama to do what the nation needs will be a lot  harder than re-electing him.

I can’t see Barack Obama as anything more than a lesser evil than Mitt Romney, and perhaps not even that.   If Mitt Romney wins based on the poor economy, or on performing better than Obama in the debates, or even on spending more money, so be it. But the Republican voter suppression campaign is in a different category.  A Romney victory based on voter suppression would be an attack on the American democratic process itself.

Click on Four Reasons Why Romney Might Still Win for the full comment by Robert Reich on his web log.

Click on FiveThirtyEight for the expert and impartial analysis of polls and statistics by Nate Silver for the New York Times.

Click on Obama vs. Romney Electoral Map for the Huffington Post’s updates and summaries of poll results.

Click on TPM Electoral College Scorecard for Talking Points Memo’s map updating and summarizing poll results.

Hat tip to Hal Bauer for the Robert Reich link.

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