Archive for September, 2020

35 days to go

[update below]

Thirty-four, to be precise. On last night’s “debate”: I didn’t watch it live, as it was at 3AM my time, though woke up at 5, just after it ended, and read through the instant commentaires on my Twitter and Facebook feeds. The universal consensus being that it was a ‘shitshow’, ‘chaotic’, a ‘disaster’, a ‘disgrace to American democracy’, an ’embarrassment to the United States of America’, and quite simply ‘the worst presidential debate in history’—not to mention a ‘dumpster fire’, ‘train wreck’, ‘grotesque spectacle’, et on en passe—I thought at first that I wouldn’t bother catching it on YouTube and subject myself to 90-minutes of a Trump even more unhinged and wretched than usual. As one friend put it on Facebook, Trump “once again challenged the English language,” as we long ago ran out of adjectives to describe his abject odiousness as a human being, who is devoid of a single redeeming quality. But I finally did watch it and am glad, as one should always form one’s own opinion about these things.

One of the social media refrains, from pundits, fellow academics, and friends alike, was that Biden was ‘weak’ and ineffective—one lefty friend called him “an establishment geezer long past his prime”—and that Chris Wallace was terrible as moderator. On Wallace and losing control of the debate: I thought he did as good a job as he could have given the circumstances. If there was a single potential moderator out there who could have gotten control of an out-of-control loud-mouthed bully with the maturity of a 3-year-old like Trump—and who happens to be President of the United States, so commands a minimum of respect in such a situation—I would like to know his or her name (it could likely never be a her).

As for Biden, I thought he acquitted himself quite well, again given the circumstances. We were all nervous that he would have a senior moment, fumble over his words, or commit one of his famous gaffes, but he didn’t. His responses were lucid and were as they should have been. And telling the idiot to ‘shut up’ and calling him a ‘clown’ were pitch perfect and impeccably timed, as was his body language in the face of Trump’s bullshit and lies. I also liked that Biden avoided answering the question about abolishing the filibuster and enlarging the Supreme Court. And the ‘inshallah’ he let out was cool; I had seen mention of it on Twitter though didn’t catch it during the debate, but he did indeed say it (as I do on most days myself BTW). Calling Antifa an idea, not an organization, was also spot-on. Biden’s keeping his cool while constantly being interrupted was admirable, as I doubt I could have had I been in his place (while watching the spectacle I continually blurted out “You are such as asshole!” whenever Trump opened his trap out of turn and wouldn’t STFU). Some on social media regretted that it wasn’t Warren or Sanders who was squaring off against the idiot, that these two would have landed one body blow after another, maybe even a K.O. punch. That’s possible, even likely, but it’s not clear that a proactive reaction—which would have delighted the liberal-progressive gallery—would have been more effective with moderate Republican women in the suburbs of Philadelphia or Charlotte than Biden’s more understated approach—such voters being one of his targets as he looked straight at the camera—and not at the idiot—as he spoke. And on being more aggressive, one knows the old adage about wrestling with a pig.

The huge takeaway from the “debate” was Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacy, his calling on the Proud Boys to “stand by,” and declaring that he will both not recognize the election result and seek to disrupt the vote unless he wins. On Trump possibly winning legitimately, Thomas Edsall’s cold shower column last week, “Five things Biden and his allies should be worried about,” spelled out possible reasons why the election may end up being a lot closer than the polls currently suggest—and with a Trump Electoral College victory—without voter suppression—in the realm of the possible. But as Biden remains at +7 to 8 in the FiveThirtyEight poll of polls and with solid leads in the key swing states—the stability in the polls is striking, and what happened last night won’t be changing that (not in Trump’s favor at least)—it looks most unlikely that Trump will be able to pull off a clean EC victory (FWIW, FiveThirtyEight presently rates that a 21% probability). And à propos, we were informed in The New York Times the day after Edsall’s column appeared that “Trump faces challenges even in red states, [the NYT/Siena College] poll shows, as women favor Biden: Close races in Georgia, Iowa and Texas show President Trump’s vulnerability and suggest that Joseph Biden has assembled a formidable coalition.”

On Trump’s threats to stage a coup d’État, everyone has by now read Barton Gellman’s bone-chilling essay in The Atlantic, “The election that could break America: If the vote is close, Donald Trump could easily throw the election into chaos and subvert the result. Who will stop him?” It’s a scary piece, in which even those with deep knowledge of American politics learned new things about the workings of the Electoral College (and which further confirmed a thought I’ve had for a while now—which I’ll maybe develop in the future—that the USA has a terrible constitution, which should serve as an anti-model for incipient democracies). If Trump, enabled by the Senate Republicans and right-wing majority on the SCOTUS, succeeds in his projected coup d’État and rules as a dictator, the constitution will not save us. We are entering a truly dangerous period.

On the Republican Party, I read an NYR Daily article just the other day dated August 12th, by historian of Italian fascism Ruth Ben-Ghiat, “Co-opt & corrupt: How Trump bent and broke the GOP.” It’s a must.

The fundamental problem in American politics, however, goes beyond Trump and GOP. It is summed up in the title of the post-debate commentary by The Bulwark’s Jonathan V. Last: “The president is a sociopath. And 60 million Americans like it.”

I have much more to say but will leave it there for now. À suivre.

UPDATE: Steven Waldman, who is president and co-founder of Report for America, has an interesting contrarian take on the debate on his Facebook page:

I thought the debate was great. And Chris Wallace was outstanding, too.

Since I know pretty much everyone is saying that both the debate and the moderator were global embarrassments, let me explain. The purpose of a debate is to reveal useful things about the candidates. We pretend that we learn by observing a careful exchange of policy positions, and sometimes that happens. But has there ever been a debate where one of the candidates revealed more about himself than this one? Wasn’t it far more clarifying than most debates?

And Chris Wallace was, for that reason, pretty perfect. He inserted himself enough to clarify that Trump was breaking the rules. That was hard to do; he defiantly, on the spot, did not engage in false equivalence. The fact Trump blew right past him was great for the country – because we got to see Trump in his rawest, truest sense. We didn’t learn about the differences in approaches to health policy – but we did learn about character, temperament and personality.

We also got to see how Biden handled such a volatile situation. He mostly showed self restraint and calm. Isn’t that more telling than a few more minutes of him explaining his buy America procurement rules?

Debates should help voters make their decisions. This one provided a deluge of useful information.

Journalists are sometimes criticized for not ‘nailing’ the subjects that they interview. That misunderstands the journalist’s role. The job is often to reveal not rebut. If I’m really honest, I have to admit that when I do interviews, especially for print publications, I will intentionally let subjects continue to say stupid or offensive things, without challenge – because that is far more revealing than if I pointed out their stupidity and thereby prompted them to clarify.

I feel the same way about debates. The point is not to catch the candidates; it’s to reveal them. In that sense, this was the best debate in modern American history.

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg, R.I.P.

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

I have nothing to say personally about this remarkable woman and her remarkable life, apart from what I briefly wrote in my February 2019 post on the biopic of her, ‘On the Basis of Sex’ (go here and scroll down). For remembrances that I’ve come across since her death yesterday, see in particular the ones by historian Heather Cox Richardson (in her indispensable daily newsletter ‘Letters from an American’), The New Yorker’s Jill Lepore, and (via Twitter) Elizabeth Warren.

This is the eventuality that liberals and progressives have been dreading since November 9, 2016, of Trump filling a liberal vacancy on the Supreme Court—Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer are ones we’ve worried about—and thereby locking in an ultra-conservative majority for a generation—and with consequences too horrible to contemplate (repealing Roe v. Wade, returning to the Lochner era in regard to business regulation, gutting environmental legislation, further reinforcing the anti-majoritarianism of the electoral system, undermining civil liberties, and you name it). Mitch McConnell may well get away with it, though this is not etched in stone. There is an outside chance that four or more Republican senators (we know their names) may not agree to hold a vote before the election, or during the lame duck session, to replace RBG. The situation is fluid, as The Nation’s Jeet Heer concluded in a trenchant Twitter commentary; we can’t know today how this is going to play out—except that it has, as Politico headlines, “[blown] up the 2020 campaign,” and with, as Ryan Lizza submits, the prospect of “turbocharg[ing] the politics of procedural radicalism.”

The Bulwark’s Jonathan V. Last, in a typically sharp analysis, says that RBG’s death 45 days before the election “may be—forgive the mixed metaphor—the black swan that breaks America’s back.” In this vein, Last’s Bulwark associate, Charlie Sykes, writing in his ‘Morning Shots’ newsletter on “RBG and the coming crisis: We could avoid the bloodbath but we probably won’t,” offers these thoughts:

Just when we thought 2020 couldn’t possibly get worse, we are about to see one of the ugliest political fights of our lifetime. It will leave scars not just on our politics, but also on the culture, and the legitimacy of the Court itself.

If you’ve been working on your ‘Worst Case Scenarios,” you’re going to have tear up and start over. If you’ve been playing at home, it’s possible that your 2020 Apocalypse Bingo card is nearly filled up.

The court vacancy obviously has long term consequences for abortion, voting rights, the environment, immigration, and the next generation of jurisprudence. But TrumpWorld is already gaming out the implications of 4-4 or 5-3 split in a contested election this year. All the planets and meteors of death are coming into alignment.

Of course, the coming bloodbath could be avoided if calmer, reasonable heads prevailed. But who are we kidding? This is 2020 and these fights always seem to bring out of very worst. (…).

Never Trumper Sykes does take care to avoid both-sidesism, as the very worst will, as we know, come exclusively from one side. There is no dirty pool on the D side of the aisle, not on this matter at least. But if Trump and McConnell succeed in ramming through RBG’s replacement before January 21st, the Democrats, should they win back both the White House and Senate—a prospect that may well be further enhanced by D voter rage and mobilization—will have no choice but to enlarge the SCOTUS, plus expand the lower federal courts by 70 to 100 new judgeships, as John Dean (of Watergate fame) has tweeted. Dean and others are talking about 2 extra SCOTUS justices, bringing the total to 11, though Norm Ornstein correctly calls for 13 justices, i.e. adding 4, to “right the wrongs from Garland and RBG.”

Will Biden, Schumer & Co have it in them to play hardball with the Republicans? To enact any of the Dems’ program, they will most certainly have no choice. And they’ll have to strike early in a Biden administration and start adding the justices, while offering the Republicans a deal: to stop at 2 if the Repubs agree to end life terms of all SCOTUS and federal judges, including those currently serving (I read a savant article some time ago by a jurist—I’ll have to find the reference—positing that such a reform would not require a constitutional amendment). I’ve been arguing the principle for years, posting on it a couple of times 8-9 years ago. Most of those who share my view call for a single 18-year term. I go for 12-year renewable terms (and a mandatory retirement age of 75), with nominations staggered every year or two—and beginning immediately, with current justices up for renewal (or retirement) in order of seniority. I can’t imagine that anyone could object to such a reform on principle.

À suivre.

UPDATE: Harold Pollack, a well-known policy maven who teaches social service administration at the University of Chicago, has posted on social media a piece he wrote in Politico in 2016 on term limits for SCOTUS justices.

Heather Cox Richardson, in her September 20th newsletter, weighs in on the “history behind this [Supreme Court] fight that explains just why it is so heated… and what is at stake.”

Brian Beutler, who is editor-in-chief of the smart webzine Crooked, argues that “After Ginsburg Dems must choose radicalism or failure.”

And don’t miss the opinion piece on the NBC News website by the very smart University of Washington political scientist Scott Lemieux—and co-author of Judicial Review and Democratic Theory: Power, Domination, and the Courts (Routledge, 2017)—”Trump and McConnell’s Supreme Court plan justifies anything the Democrats do in 2021: Packing the court, ending the filibuster and giving Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico statehood should all be on the table, if all norms are off the table.”

2nd UPDATE: Matt Bruenig, a founder of the People’s Policy Project, has a must-read piece in Jacobin, “What exactly is the liberal position on the Supreme Court?” The lede: “The Supreme Court is way too powerful — and its power shouldn’t be wielded for good, it should be permanently undermined. Many liberals are close to coming around to this position, but few articulate it clearly.”

Also in the must-read category, and following in Bruenig’s vein, is the piece by The Week’s Ryan Cooper, “Democrats have a better option than court packing.”

And summing things up is the excellent column by the NYT’s Jamelle Bouie, “Down with judicial supremacy! The Supreme Court was never meant to be the only arbiter of the meaning of the Constitution.”

3rd UPDATE: The Atlantic’s Russell Berman, writing on life terms for SCOTUS and federal judges, says that “No other Western democracy allows this: Only in America does so much power rest in the hands of elderly judges.”

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55 days to go

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

Fifty-four days, in fact. Political scientist and well-known specialist of populist movements Takis S. Pappas, who is presently at the University of Helsinki, has published an essay on his blog, “Why Trump is likely to get re-elected: A populism expert’s view,” and which he posted on his Facebook page. I had to respond to it (before reading me, please read him). I’ve said much of this before but here goes:

Your last sentence is key: “since no two cases in history are exactly the same, no history’s rule is binding.” The USA differs from the other 8 cases you cite, in that, among others, it has had regularly scheduled, quadrennial elections for the past 230 years and the results of which have been accepted as legitimate. To include the USA in a study of “lands of populism” is debatable (if the USA, why not the UK too, what with Brexit and the Trump admirer Boris Johnson?) In regard to the populist candidate’s victory in 2016, it cannot be stressed enough that this was a *freak accident*. Though a small number of clairvoyant persons predicted a Trump victory, absolutely no one foresaw him winning the electoral college, and by the margin he did, while losing the national popular vote by over 2%. This was unprecedented in US history. To repeat, no pollster, politico, pundit, or political scientist saw this one coming.

Since 2016, Trump’s populist party (the Republicans) has lost almost every intermediate and other by-election. If it weren’t for the anti-majoritarian features of the American electoral system—notably the electoral college, which now structurally favors the Republicans—Trump’s defeat this November would be a foregone conclusion. Since taking office in January 2017, Trump has never, not once, exceeded 47% approval in the polls (the average of them at a given moment). His approval rating has flat-lined at 40-43% for most of the past 3½ years, with the percentage disapproving of him (and strongly so) 10 to 15 points higher. An incumbent in a presidential system simply cannot win reelection with numbers like these—unless the opponent is an extremist and even more unpopular (e.g. France in 2002, and even that was an accident) or the system is rigged.

In this respect, if every registered voter who wishes to cast a vote in the November election is able to do so, and whose ballot is then properly tabulated, Biden will win and Trump will lose. This is a near certainty. The only way Trump can win is through voter suppression (with methods perfected by the Republican Party in a number of states, including key swing ones, not to mention manipulation of the US Postal Service; a phenomenon that makes the USA a true outlier among liberal democracies). For Trump to win 270+ electoral votes without voter suppression, he would have to lose the national popular vote by 3% or less, which is conceivable, though would have to be preceded by a dramatic shift in public opinion in his favor in the closing stretch of the campaign, which is, objectively speaking, most unlikely (particularly in the absence of a scandal or major negative revelation concerning Biden). Unless the polling on Trump over the past four years has been way off (which it was not in 2016, so why would it be now?), Biden is on track to win the national popular vote—provided the election is fair across the board—by at least 4 to 5 points, which will all but guarantee victory in the electoral college. If Biden maintains his present margin—7.8% today at FiveThirtyEight.com (which, FYI, is 0.1% greater than George Bush’s margin over Michael Dukakis in 1988)—he will win an electoral college landslide.

N.B. Since Biden declared his candidacy a year-and-a-half ago, he has never not led Trump in the polls, and by several points. And since early June, he has been at 50% or higher (something Hillary Clinton never achieved in 2016).

On your enumeration of Biden’s weaknesses, I don’t think any of them withstand scrutiny. The Democratic Party has its usual divisions—as a big tent party of the center and left, since when has it not?—but they are not so pronounced this year. The unity of the party behind Biden has, in fact, been quite remarkable (see, e.g., Bernie Sanders’ full-throttled support of Biden at the DNC). On Biden not being “charismatic,” so what? Since when has it taken charisma to beat charisma? As for Trump’s “law and order” demagoguery, there is, at least so far, no sign that this is working for him. In fact, it may well be working against him. And on the “vision thing” (borrowing from G.H.W. Bush), Biden and the Democrats have a detailed program for change (which Trump & Co are trying to tar as “radical left”). However one wants to see Biden on this, what vision is Trump offering except for four more years of himself? As he is the incumbent, the election will be about that and him.

On the chance of a Biden electoral college win if he wins the popular vote by X points, Nate Silver, in a Sep. 2nd tweet, has this:

0-1 points: just 6%!
1-2 points: 22%
2-3 points: 46%
3-4 points: 74%
4-5 points: 89%
5-6 points: 98%
6-7 points: 99%

To be continued.

UPDATE: Takis Pappas responded to me on Facebook:

The trouble, as I see it, is that Trump’s “vision thing” resonates among that “society thing” that America has become in recent years. The country is quite different from what it used to be during most of the past 230 years of political liberalism (which BJ still respects, hence the difference with Trump). I don’t know if Trump’s 2016 win was a “freak accident,” as you say. What I do know, though, if that the four years of his rule have been freakish and have cultivated a freakish mentality that that will get expressed in this freakish election. Pollsters cannot capture most of that! On the other hand, one can easily predict that, in typical populist fashion, Trump has planned his campaign around winning swing states for attaining 270+ electoral votes. To this purpose, he will employ the state mechanism and his powers for discouraging voters from voting, suppressing, and any other type of electoral trickery. Polarization is only to his advantage. Anyways, if Trump’s America is comparable to other known cases of populism, as I believe and have written some about, then I also think that there there are lessons to be learned.

And my rejoinder (Sep. 10th):

You’re right about one thing, which is that the Trump campaign is entirely focused on crossing the 270 EV threshold—Trump’s henchmen know that he has no chance of winning the popular vote—and will pull out all the stops to get there, including voter suppression, trickery, breaking norms and even laws, abject demagoguery, and you name it. As more than one pundit has observed, Trump is not so much trying to win reelection as he is to stay in power, as the personal consequences to him of losing—in view of the almost countless lawsuits that will await him—are potentially calamitous. It is likewise for the Republican Party and its plutocratic donor class, for whom a loss of the Senate, in addition to the White House, is almost unthinkable. So it looks like we don’t differ on Trump’s sole path to victory.

You’re also right in suggesting that pollsters can’t capture everything. There’s a fair amount of guesswork in the likely voter screens and we’ve learned that certain major polling institutes were underestimating the number of less educated white voters. The latter has been rectified, presumably at least. But like I said, it is really very unlikely that the polls (the mean as calculated by 538) are seriously misfiring, e.g. having Biden at, say, +7 when he may, in fact, only be at +2.

American society is certainly different from what it was 60 years ago but when it comes to the party system, the big change has taken place within the Republican Party, which has gone from a big tent party spanning the center to the hard right, to one entirely dominated by the hard right, with its erstwhile liberal and moderate conservative wings having vanished and mainstream conservatives capitulated to the reactionaries and populists. How this came about I discussed in my September 2017 post “How the Republican Party went crazy.”

What has in effect happened to the Republican Party is that it has become “Southernized,” assuming the ethos and world-view of the Old South. One cannot make sense of American politics without understanding the specificity of the South—i.e. the states of the Confederacy—which has been hostile terrain for liberal values and where one-party rule has always been the norm. The American South has not only been an outlier among democracies but was the most quasi-feudal region in the western world into the 20th century. All one needs to do is look at voter participation rates before the 1965 Voting Rights Act; e.g. in presidential elections in South Carolina to the 1940s, the percentage of the adult population that voted was in the single digits (and with the Democratic candidate receiving in the mid to high 90%), signifying that not only were black voters disenfranchised but many (poor) whites as well. Until the civil rights era, the Solid South was, of course, dominated by the Democratic Party. In the national party, though, the Southern Democrats were only one bloc among others. But when southern whites defected to the Republicans—and with a dominant GOP replacing the Democrats at the state level—their world-view eventually became hegemonic in the party, far more so than it was in the pre-1960s D party. This is the reality of American politics today and will remain so for a long while to come.

If one hasn’t seen it, do read the op-ed (Sep. 8th) by NYT editorial board member Jesse Wegman, “The Electoral College will destroy America.”

2nd UPDATE: With 50 days to go (Sep. 13th), Biden is maintaining his lead at +7.2. Unless there’s a big game-changer between now and November 3rd—an October Surprise is always possible, of course (e.g. the Comey letter in 2016)—Biden is likely to win the popular vote by more or less this margin. One thing that has not been much mentioned in election analyses is third-party or other candidates, who were a factor in 2016. Here is the cumulative total vote as a percentage for minor party candidates in the past five elections:
2016: 5.7%
2012: 1.7%
2008: 1.4%
2004: 1.0%
2000: 3.7%

The figure this year will no doubt be much closer to that of 2012 than 2016—and with potential third-party votes going to the candidate challenging the unpopular incumbent, as tends to happen. In 2016, 136M people voted. If we assume that 150M vote this year—a big “if” given the pandemic, though an otherwise realistic prediction in view of the 2018 midterm turnout—we’re looking at a Biden-Trump result on the order of 52.5%/45.5% (and ≈ 78M/68M votes; N.B. Obama won 52.9% of the popular vote in 2008 and 51.1% in 2012). With this margin Biden will obviously win the Electoral College in a walk, netting 350 EVs if he takes every state that Hillary Clinton came within 5 percentage points of winning. Realistic? On verra.

3rd UPDATE: Writing in The Guardian (Sep. 13th), John S. Gardner, who was special assistant to George H.W. Bush and deputy assistant to George W. Bush, reviews (favorably) historian Heather Cox Richardson’s How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America (Oxford University Press, 2020). See also historian Randall J. Stephens’ review of Richardson’s book in The Washington Post. And if one has some time, listen to discussions with Richardson on C-Span and Bill Moyers on Democracy.

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