My Primary Endorsements

On Tuesday, Bay State voters will pick Democratic and Republican standard bearers for lots of different offices. Below are my recommendations for a number of these contests. Continue reading

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I am one of the founders of and a contributor to the blog If you are looking for my thoughts on politics and ideas, please check out my contributions there.

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Republicans are trapped in a box of their own making.

imageWhy do right wingers insist on pretending that the President is somehow obliged to “take the lead” in proposing the spending cuts that would become part of the Democrats’ preferred “balanced approach” to longterm fiscal policy? Neither the White House nor congressional Democrats have insisted Republicans must “take the lead” on revenue increase proposals. Continue reading

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“Common Sense” Distorts Debate

The re-emergence of the gun control debate in America has reminded me of a book I used last year in an undergraduate course on critical thinking and persuasive writing. The book, by sociologist Duncan Watts, is called Everything is Obvious: Once You Know The Answer. For an excellent and thorough review of the book, go here. Watts makes a compelling and sophisticated argument about the counter-productivity of relying on “common sense” when trying to understand or solve uncommon problems. Continue reading

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Duquette Analysis of Brown-Warren U.S. Senate Race (8/16/11 thru 9/28/12)

The following is a list of links to all 55 blog posts I wrote that touched on the Brown-Warren Senate race between August 16, 2011 and September 28, 2012. It is both interesting and instructive to see how well my assumptions and expectations regarding this contest have fared. Continue reading

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The Balance & Competitiveness Canards

The media’s reporting and analysis of the 2012 election is replete with two irrepressible canards: a phony notion of balance and a need to inflate the competitiveness of marquis races. Obviously, it’s literally true that even the most lopsided races are not over until they are over, so to speak, but the tendency of media analysts to break their backs trying to include positive and negative comments about both sides in campaign coverage is annoying and absurd. For example, ending every column with some version of “anything could happen” is often transparently absurd, if not dishonest. Continue reading

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The “Politics of Personal CONstruction”

Americans are well conditioned to be contemptuous of the so-called “politics of personal destruction” where in contending candidates or parties level personal attacks against their political foes in an effort to discredit them in the minds of voters on matters not related to public policy or political philosophy. On the other hand, American voters have been equally well conditioned to celebrate another brand of personalized politics that is actually just as deceptive and destructive of deliberative democracy. Indeed, personal attacks on opponents would be far less useful in elections if not for Americans’ embrace of the other side of the personalized politics coin. The “politics of personal CONstruction” are not a popular subject of political cautionary tales, but they should be. Continue reading

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Nervous Dems to Warren: Hey lady, step it up!!!

The media narrative that features nervous Democratic pols, activists, and consultants wringing their hands about Elizabeth Warren’s supposed campaign inadequacies has another entry. Dan Payne, a political commentator at WBUR radio in Boston recently published a column on the station’s web site called “What’s Wrong with the Warren Campaign.” In it, he clearly and cogently lists and describes several popular complaints about Warren’s campaign to date. I’m not referring to complaints from Republicans, mind you; Payne’s list of problems actually represents the fears of nervous Democratic “insiders.” Continue reading

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Et tu, Charlie?

The news that former Springfield Mayor, Charlie Ryan, had endorsed Republican Scott Brown was a bit surprising. When I read the newspaper story describing his announcement at a popular local bakery in my old neighborhood, however, I was not at all surprised by the entirely “personal” nature of the endorsement. Continue reading

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The Empathy Consensus?

A study described in a recent New York Magazine article about the relationship between wealth and empathy caught my eye this week. I posted it to my Facebook page (without comment) and a politically conservative friend responded with a thoughtful analysis that concluded with the following line: “Can’t you see how this is a lesson for both sides of the right vs left argument?” I certainly can and do. Continue reading

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Obamacare had to be upheld

Many of the discussions about why the Roberts Court upheld the Affordable Care Act’s “individual mandate” are thoughtful and interesting. However, at a very basic level, it’s not like they really had a choice. Continue reading

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Working Class Conservatism?

The idea that working class voters who vote Republican are voting against their own economic interests has been around for a long time now. Debates about this notion are common.

Basically, many white, socio-culturally conservative working class voters are voting Republican because either they prioritize their “moral” interests and principles above their economic interests and principles, or they consider their moral and economic interests and principles to be politically compatible. If working class voters who vote their economic interests and believe that the Democratic Party is more likely to protect their economic interests nonetheless choose to vote for Republicans, then such voters can reasonably be characterized as “irrational.” But I’m not familiar with any polling data suggesting this self-consciously contradictory posture among any segment of the electorate, which means that the folks under scrutiny here perceive their moral and economic interests and principles as compatible, or at least as not incompatible. The difficulty of reconciling this apparent “cognitive dissonance” using economic theory and data begs the question of why? Why do these folks think that their economic interests square with the economic philosophy and policy agenda of the Republican Party?

Christians in America have been convinced to connect their moral and spiritual existence with their social identity and their “life’s work” since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. The compatibility of protestant theology and laissez-faire capitalism, famously expressed by Max Weber, provides an excellent template for fusing faith-based religious principles and faith-based economic principles. Furthermore, the theoretical compatibility of Protestantism and capitalism articulated by Weber is not encumbered by the realities of modern capitalism. It was conceived, heralded, and internalized before the systematic study of such realities laid waste to many of the theoretical assumptions of classical free market theory.

Since they are VERY used to having their faith-based beliefs (and gospels) condemned, mocked, and discredited by secular cultural elites, devout Christians in America are literally primed for indoctrination by economic conservatives. Indeed, the similarity between their passion for defending their religious beliefs and the way they have been called on to defend classical free market theology provides a near perfect antidote to any consciousness of contradiction.

A poor Kansas farmer who votes for Republicans that cut federal assistance and/or benefits to poor farmers believes that his long term economic interest (as well as that of those like him) depends on his ability to take care of himself without government assistance. From this perspective, Democrats who want to help him are perceived as immoral manipulators trying to make him dependent on government handouts and thereby dependent on Democratic office holders. So “freedom” requires rigid self-determination. Government spending to help those in need puts all Americans on “the road to serfdom;” to economic AND moral ruin. This is a very powerful narrative for which a motivated advocate can find plenty of supporting “evidence.” Such evidence fortifies faith-based voters against the economic determinism of liberal secularists, who say they are being suckered or used by the 1%. Thanks to the deeply embedded narrative explained above these voters can take comfort in the faith-based knowledge that they are the ones who understand reality, while liberals are the narrow-minded suckers allowing themselves to be used and enslaved.

The centrality of moral principles to the political attitudes, values, and behavior of American voters has been so decisively established by research from across the social sciences that the notion of American voters as economic rationalists has been relegated to the margins of voter behavior research. The persistence of rationalistic criticisms of working class economic conservatism is counter-productive in much the same way as are the efforts of atheists to discredit faith in God’s existence using the logic and procedures of science. If Democrats can’t frame their policy agenda and governing philosophy in moral terms, then the Republicans will be increasingly understood as the morally sensitive (if not superior) political coalition.

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Memorial Day Speech

The following is the text of a speech prepared for delivery (not by me) at Agawam Veterans Cemetary at yesterday’s Memorial Day ceremony.

Like many before me, I have the task here today of honoring the men and women who have sacrificed their lives for their country. The difficulty of this task was recognized very long ago, more than 2400 years ago in fact. It was Pericles who worried out loud in front of crowd not unlike this one about the “virtues of [so] many” being entrusted to the public remarks of one man, which as anybody whose heard a lot of public speeches knows, aren’t always worthy of enshrinement in books of great speeches.

I definitely share the deep sense of humility and even fear of inadequacy expressed so long ago by this great Greek General and Statesman.

Pericles said something else in his speech at the funeral of Athenian soldiers killed in the Peloponnisian War that I believe as ardently as I think he did. He said,– and I’m paraphrasing a bit here—

Men who have proved their virtue in action- by action- should be honored for it.

Sober and respectful remembrances are actions of a sort, though I’m quite sure Pericles had more in mind…I know I do.

We live in a world where things move very fast; where the trials and tribulations of daily life can easily overwhelm us; sap us of the energy which is truly required for honorable action. The men and women, many interned here all around us, removed themselves from their daily lives willingly, if not voluntarily, to undertake honorable action… on our behalf… with the full knowledge that such action may well get them killed.

What could we possibly do to be worthy of their sacrifice? I have a very modest suggestion…

As we experience…endure…that which precedes war…namely politics… over the next six months or so, I would ask every man and women here today to do their duty to our democracy with great care. Devote more time… and more critical attention… to the debates and arguments that will animate the 2012 elections in our great Republic. Actively resist the cheapening of the principles for which our fallen brothers and sisters gave their lives.

When politicans use the cadence of war and envoke America’s creedal principles to elevate themselves and their partisan interests to nobler heights in the minds of voters … actively resist, reject, and condemn these. Remind everyone in ear shot of who truly deserves to be associated with great moments of existential risk. Remind anybody you can that politics IS NOT WAR! And, anyone who would elevate it to this station should be reproached.

The defenders of our creedal principles, listed in the Declaration of Independence, lie in places like this one all over the world.

Do your part this election season to give these warriors, these genuine defenders of America, her flag, and her values, peaceful repose.

Let only clear truth and honorable action, not mere words or images, move your heart, and motivate you in the performance of your duty as a citizen of the United States of America.


Happy Memorial Day everybody.

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Warren’s going the distance

I called the upcoming US Senate race in Massachusetts for Elizabeth Warren months ago for a number of very sound reasons, which you can read in my posts at However, I have acknowledged the possibility of a Brown victory. While, I don’t think it’s possible to drown out his poor fit with the Massachusettss electorate on issues or ideology, I do believe that his personal charisma, combined with successfully discrediting Warren (i.e. by knock out) give him a “puncher’s chance.”

This weekend I heard Elizabeth Warren in person for the first time and it’s very clear to me that she does not have a glass chin. Brown’s increasingly despirate punches are simply not landing on the feisty anti-Wall Street crusader. Her wealth, Wall Street connections, Ivy League creds, and now her Indian heritage have all been attacked by Brown with very little evidence of success. As the issues from the national campaign get closer and closer to this Senate race, Brown’s opportunities to land a body blow will diminish as will his aim.

If he can’t discredit Warren by mid-summer, he’ll be left praying for an October surprize.

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Jacoby’s Folly

Apparently, Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby doesn’t let intellectual integrity or logic interfere with his efforts to sell his spin. In a recent column he attacks Congressman Jim McGovern for being opposed to the U.S. Constitution. Sometimes, partisan pundits forced to produce multiple columns per week, employ weak arguments. I’m always sympathetic on this count because I know that intelligent and reasonable arguments are hard work and cannot really be produced constantly on tight deadlines. Nonetheless, the following line from Jacoby’s attack on Congressman McGovern reveals an argument so transparently weak that I think its author needs a vacation. Jacoby should take some time, clear his head, and come back in a month or so refreshed and ready to uphold basic standards of intellectual integrity and logic.

Jacoby writes:

But McGovern’s problem, it turns out, is with the Bill of Rights. He objects to the way it safeguards fundamental rights — such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances — not only when citizens act as lone individuals, but also when they unite as corporations in order to pool their assets and act more efficiently. [Emphasis added]

Careful readers should note two things about this sentence. Jacoby refers to the freedoms of the Bill of Rights as “fundamental rights,” instead of “individual rights.” He then employs the comically redundant phrase “lone individuals” in order to support the rhetorical abandonment of his own principles for the sake of attacking a liberal congressman.

Has Jacoby decided to become a supporter of group rights? Maybe he’s mad about liberals stealing “individual rights” in their opposition to corporate personhood, or their shameless theft of individual responsibility from the Heritage Foundation’s health insurance reform plan (i.e. Obamacare’s “individual mandate”)? Maybe he’s still bitter about Hilary Clinton’s theft of the conservative notion that “it takes a village to raise a child?”

Who knows? What I do know is that this intellectually sloppy column is another sad reminder of how thoroughly anti-intellectualism has infected America’s political conversation. Partisan punditry is not the problem, by the way. There’s nothing wrong with vigorous partisan argument among public intellectuals. In fact, reasonable arguments carried on in public by interested and informed thinkers and writers is a good and useful thing. What is wrong is when these folks, whose work provides information and insight to the citizenry, abandon intellectual standards.

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Out of Sync: Political Conservatism and Judicial Conservatism

James Toranto’s WSJ op-ed of March 22, 2012, The Ineffective Greenhouse: A Liberal legal legend’s ludicrous ObamaCare defense is a veritable case study in bad argument and disingenuous spin. It also illustrates the liklihood of an imerging split between political conservatism and the Supreme Court’s conservative majority. Part personal attack and part transparently weak rebuttal to the Obama Administration’s legal defense theory on the “individual mandate” provision of the Affordable Care Act, Toranto’s essay would have earned quite a bit of red ink if he had written it for college credit.

The first sign that Toranto’s mission and message are muddled is his choice to criticize a liberal columnist, The New York Times’ Linda Greenhouse, instead of the case for the individual mandate directly. It seemed clear to me that Toranto grudgingly accepts the weakness of the constitutional argument against the individual mandate, but wants to vent his frustration with what he sees as the arrogance of liberal analysts writing about the case. An interesting sign of his own insecurity is his repeated references to “us” and “we” as if his op-ed was written by the entire WSJ editorial board. He even admits that “many elite conservative lawyers agree with Greenhouse about the likely outcome of the case,” after which he parenthetically adds “if not the merits.” That’s a big “if.”

In case anybody reading his op-ed wasn’t clear that he is squirming, Toranto writes, “Although we’ve elided some of Greenhouse’s verbiage, this is a fair representation of her argument.” Who’s he trying to convince here? And again, who is “we?” Although Greenhouse included several elements of the Administration’s legal case, including several precedents, Toranto follows up this unintended admission of guilt with the claim that Greenhouse’s argument “boils down to repeatedly sneering at the word unprecedented.”

Toranto repeats the rhetorical sleight of hand being used by opponents of the individual mandate by claiming “[t]he court has never decided the question posted by ObamaCare: whether the Commerce Clause gives Congress the power to require that individuals purchase a financial instrument from a private company.” Of course this very careful “post hoc” question construct was purposely designed to obscure the relevance of several Supreme Court precedents that have in fact “decided the question posed by ObamaCare.” These precedents, which he wrongly claims that Greenhouse ignored, are front and center in the government’s argument in favor of the individual mandate. His obsequious admission that elite conservatives agree with Greenhouse provides pretty compelling evidence that Toranto’s winging it here. Maybe he figured it would be easier to get away with misrepresenting Greenhouse’s argument than that of the Obama Administration.

Then, Toranto goes from bad to worse by quoting Greenhouse badly out of context while offering an analysis of “stare decisis” that wouldn’t pass muster in an undergraduate course on the Courts. After quoting Greenhouse on the importance of precedents, he argues that “[s]ince no existing precedent authorizes the individual mandate, the court can strike down the ObamaCare mandate without offending stare decisis.” This gets the Court’s constitutional duty almost exactly backwards. The Court does not presume an act of Congress is unconstitutional if no precedent for its actions exists. To find an Act unconstitutional the Court need precedents of its own or clear language from the Constitution itself that supports invalidating a duly passed law. To say that the absence of precedents contradicting an act of Congress is sufficient to invalidate such an act is NUTZ!

Toranto rounds out his pitiful lament with an attack on the “liberal intelligencia,” which he claims with clear hints of jealousy and desperation, “does not have as much power as it used to.”

The bottom-line here is that political conservatives may be coming to the embarrassing conclusion that the conservative Justices on the Supreme Court may not be willing to follow the Republican Party over the cliff into intellectual oblivion. The widely chronicled anti-intellectualism and know-nothingism of present day political conservatives cannot be adopted wholesale by conservative justices without severely damaging both the legacies of the justices themselves and the integrity of the Court itself, which as the Federalist taught us, “has neither force nor wisdom, only judgment.” While the short term political miscalculations and intellectual embarrassments of politicians fade from memory, the consequences of similar stupidities on the Supreme Court live on and do great damage for a very long time.

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Brown is “All In.” Warren should take her time playing her cards.

Brown is “all in” and Warren should take her time playing her cards.

The 2012 U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts may provide a concrete answer to a perennial question in American electioneering. Is victory in a competitive electorate secured by focusing on rallying the base, or on attracting so-called “swing” voters. The Brown-Warren race is a fantastic opportunity to help clarify this debate.

No one following this race seriously doubts the need for Senator Brown to focus on the middle, or the potential swing voters. As an incumbent Republican in Massachusetts whose initial “special” election was secured by a very energized conservative Republican base, outside observers could be forgiven for wondering why Brown would not be helped by a base rallying strategy in 2012. Of course, in Massachusetts this year rallying his 2010 “special” election base would mean rallying the state’s “TEA Party” contingent. In 2012, this would not only seriously damage his appeal to potential “swing” voters, it would even be a very uphill climb to rally these conservatives who, since his election in 2010, have totally abandoned him and roundly criticized him for “selling them out.”

Both his voting record in the senate and a radically different national political mood have forced the Brown campaign’s hand. If Brown can’t make this election about the personal qualities of the candidates and exploit centrist frustrations over partisan politics and extremism, he simply cannot win re-election in November. In a way, this is good for the campaign in that it eliminates intra-campaign debate and disagreement about strategy and tactics and allows them to approach their task with enthusiasm, energy, and single-minded focus with the knowledge that if this approach doesn’t work, nothing else would have.

It’s March and virtually every pundit is gushing over Brown’s energy and singular focus on connecting with potential swing voters. Democrats are increasingly frightened of being run over by “Great Scott” in the November election. Polls show Brown gaining favor with independents and even Democrats. Warren’s camp is under increasing pressure to “get into the game” before it’s “too late” in what amounts to fear that THIS election WILL be decided by the candidates’ ability to make voters feel like they are “one of them.” The thing is; the race will not be about the candidates, unless Warren allows Brown to goad her into making it about the candidates. The polls giving Democrats fits are NOT polls of the actual November electorate. Much of the anxiety on the left (as well as the hope on the right) is based on the assumption that these polls actually have predictive value. They do not. These early polls only have value to the players who benefit from a “horse race.” Pundits, pollsters, and reporters need a horse race. They always do, but this year one of the candidate’s also badly needs the race to be a horse race because if it isn’t he cannot win.

The worst thing the Warren camp could do right now is believe the hype. If Warren isn’t equally as committed and confident in her strategy (rally the base, nationalize the race) as Brown is to his she will inadvertently help Brown. If she did “come out swinging” and attempt to out-do Brown as a retail campaigner eight months before Election Day, she would be making two big mistakes. First, she would be ratifying his chosen frame for the race, and second, she would be playing on his turf where she will be judged by criteria on which he has numerous advantages.

Warren campaign is run by some of the best in the business. Some of the same folks who pushed Barack Obama past Hilary Clinton in 2008 are no doubt counseling Warren to be patient and to keep her powder dry until it can be employed with maximum effectiveness. Because Brown will have more money than Warren, it is in his interest to try to coax her out as early as possible in order tax her resources and to give him opportunities to define her candidacy before the narrative turns to national issues and to President Obama and Mitt Romney. Once national issues and candidates enter the minds of Massachusetts voters in 2012, Brown’s efforts will be severely handicapped.

The nearly irresistible urge to believe that this, or any campaign, will be won or lost by the candidates’ and campaigns’ performances is fueling both the Brown early energy and the anxiety among Democrats and Warren supporters. However, if anyone should have the confidence to put political science data and the “big picture” ahead of the hype, it should be Harvard professor, Elizabeth Warren, whose patience in the face of partisan assault was made very clear during her confrontations with US Senate Republicans trying to de-rail her efforts to fight Wall Street.

I expect Warren’s advisors are somewhat nervously counseling their candidate to “wait until you can see the whites of their eyes” because they understand how few actual swing voters exist, on the one hand, and that those who do exist are not presently engaged in the race. Indeed, a campaign focused on rallying the base can benefit from a slow visibility start, especially if it is attending to the low visibility but high yield work of organizing its campaign infrastructure. Unlike Brown, Warren’s campaign has the luxury of careful timing. Brown is in an all out assault that he must win early. If he can’t define Warren and the race before the national issues and candidates become central, his chances of prevailing on Election Day are nil. He’s basically “going for broke.”

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Has Brown’s problem been Blunted?

The narrow defeat of the so-called Blunt Amendment in the Senate was no doubt music to the ears of Senator Brown’s campaign team. Brown’s hope of carving out a viable political identity as an “independent” voice in the U.S Senate has been seriously compromised by the freshman Senator’s support for allowing employers to exclude healthcare coverage options for their employees if they have “religious or moral” objections to such options. Had the controversial measure passed narrowly with Brown’s vote, Elizabeth Warren’s ability to cast him as a toady of the Senate Republican leadership would have been like taking candy from a baby. Its narrow defeat with Brown’s support is still going to hurt him, but at least he has gained a plausible excuse to claim the issue is off the table.

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Oh Yeah!

The Obama Administration’s manipulation of the religious right on the recent contraceptive coverage issue, which grew out of the enforcement of the Affordable Care Act, has embarrassed conservative politicos. Many of them are presently in full “saving face” mode. Two of the Washington Post’s conservative columnists, Mark Thiessen and Michael Gerson, have penned what amounts to a couple of “oh yeah, well Obama will regret it” columns complete with plenty of moral self righteousness and feigned confidence in the political prospects of the right. Both assume that Catholic swing voters will “punish” Obama at the poles for his disrespect of their “faith.”

They are almost certainly wrong, but given the nature of the game these days their predictable responses are essentially S.O.P. for partisan pundits of all stripes.

P.S. – Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s column, Divide and Conquer is a more intellectually credible analysis than those described above.

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Save your Outrage

The silliness of “moral equivalence” arguments is too often left unstated. When folks feign outrage at the mockery of powerful people, races, classes, or institutions it’s important to throw the BS flag.

Case in point; Michael Gerson, a conservative columnist, complains about the lack of outrage at anti-Catholic prejudice at the “Grammy’s.” He smugly declares that liberals would not be so blasé about anti-Muslim bigotry. But of course this is as it should be because compared to the Catholic Church, American Muslims are powerless victims of prejudice and mockery.

In other words, it’s understandably more acceptable and less objectionable to pick on the strong than it is to pick on the weak. Pretending that all prejudice and all mockery is equally good, bad, or ugly is an intellectual sham at best and, in my opinion at least, an indicator of moral cowardess.

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Stop “Culture Warriors” in the metaphor stage.

I have lots of facebook friends who are politically conservative. Sometimes they post things that are disturbing, but then again so do my more liberal friends now and then. The following, however, represents an alarming trend that thanks to social media is finding its way out of the shadows and into mainstream dialogue. The “Culture War” is bad enough as a metaphor. Efforts to make it an actual war cannot be taken too lightly.

facebook post:
What did I think of the Grammy’s? Its a Showdown, Are you ready?

“The world is rapidly being divided into two camps, the comradeship of anti-Christ and the brotherhood of Christ. The lines between these two are being drawn. How long the battle will be we know not; whether swords will have to be unsheathed we know not; whether blood will have to be shed we know not; whether it will be an armed conflict we know not. But in a conflict between truth and darkness, truth cannot lose.” Archbishop Fulton Sheen

As a political science professor, I spend a lot of time talking about the relevance of politics to our lives. The potential of empowering religious extremists by allowing them a greater measure of control over government institutions should motivate all Americans of good will and sound mind to use their voice and their vote this year to repel this very dangerous and very un-American trend.

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The State of the “Response”

President Obama’s State of the Union speech was well written and well delivered. It was also carefully poll-tested, sprinkled with carefully couched political boasts and challenges to his critics. Because presidents get this grand stage with no time limit and plenty of “production value,” it has long been a perfect venue for campaigning. As a liberal, I enjoyed the speech, both for its policy content and its political effectiveness.

As a political scientist, I couldn’t help wonder why opposition parties don’t pass on their opportunity to deliver a partisan “response.” Speaking late at night from some location chosen for symbolic purpose, a bright light of the opposition party has maybe 10 minutes to try to dent the force of a president’s “close up.” Unlike the president, the person responding for the opposition party delivers an explicitly partisan political response. So, even though the president’s speech is always partisan and political, he has the advantage of doing it in a constitutionally designated way in the House Chamber with lots of official pomp and circumstance. Like most president’s, Obama never attacked his Republican opponents by name and delivered his sharp political blows just subtly enough to deny his opponents any useful campaign video. The person delivering the “response,” however, has none of these advantages.

As usual, last night’s effort by Governor Daniels was small, explicitly partisan and political, and inescapably bitter. Daniels is neither small nor bitter, but he had a mission that simply cannot be accomplished gracefully or thoughtfully by anyone. Forced to ignore the bulk of a president’s speech, the opposition party response must rely on what amounts to a “liar, liar” defense. Unable to take enough time to attack his target subtly or tactfully, Daniels was forced to make his charges too bluntly and without any substantiation.

I wonder when the parties will realize that this type of response is not useful to them. I also wonder why anyone with personal political ambition would agree to do it.

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The Holy Ghost and the Invisible Hand

The line of attack being pursued by Newt Gingrich and company against Mitt Romney is generating bone fide panic among hard line Republican conservatives. From Newt’s perspective, he is engaged in what amounts to a forced confession regarding the difference between capitalism in theory and capitalism in practice. Faith is by definition the belief in something that cannot be proven. Religious faith is hard to knock but “faith” in the virtue of rigidly and dogmatically applying an 18th Century economic theory to our 21st Century economy shouldn’t be.

Social and economic conservatives have enjoyed good relations in the Republican Party in recent decades because economic conservatives learned to speak the language of their socially conservative brethren. A wonderful discussion of this dynamic can be found in a column in today’s New York Times by Kevin Kruse. Social conservatives were made to understand free market economic theory as gospel truth, rather than as an abstract philosophical model the applicability of which is by definition debatable. By re-infusing free market theory with Protestant theological values, sans the rigid theological prohibitions against things like usury of course, 20th Century economic conservatives not so subtly revived the theological sleight-of-hand that taught 18th and 19th Century American church goers about the causal connection between personal material prosperity and God’s favor.

I haven’t heard any right wingers lately going around and touting their wealth as a sign from God that they were going to heaven, but the subconscious connection between wealth and virtue does become evident quite often when you read between the lines of conservative political rhetoric. Poverty isn’t just the result of bad choices or even of incompetence. It’s evidence of sin; of evil and immoral character and conduct. Moral condemnation is key here because it provides further justification for what conservatives euphemistically call “tough love.” It’s one thing to force people to clean up their act on their own so they will learn important skills and become self reliant, but without the notion that the folks who fail in this regard are also evil or immoral, it would be much harder to call ignoring the suffering of the poor an act of compassion, or what has become known in politics as “compassionate conservatism.”

The beauty of this for conservative ideologues is that these moral implications effectively shield their economic extremism from the critical scrutiny of their political base. The chief policy manifestations of the “invisible hand” theory of markets are deregulation and tax cuts, which get unmitigated and eternal support from conservatives without regard to actual economic conditions because they reduce government’s role in the economy and because they reduce the morally corrupting influence of government on the moral choices of individuals. Tax cuts and economic deregulation are ALWAYS good and those who resist or oppose them are not just wrong; they are corrupt and immoral. They lack faith in God and in America, making them deserving of scorn and condemnation, not just political opposition.

Because it will be much harder to dismiss the former Republican Speaker of the House as just another liberal/commie/socialist/etc, Newt’s forced confession has the potential to shake the faith of at least some of those who make up the so-called “religious” right. By exposing the immoral tactics and motives of predatory and crony capitalists, many of which were explicitly and powerfully condemned from pulpits all across 19th Century America, Newt is like the kid who squeals on his brother for stealing the cookies because he didn’t get any… this time. As a parent, you may be disappointed in his choice to “tattle” on his sibling, but you can’t deny or ignore the crime and punishment of his brother. Right? When Mitt and Rush and others flail and shout about Newt’s tattle-tailing maybe his long record of economic conservatism will help conservative voters to focus on the crime he exposed, rather than the manner in which he exposed it.

What if truly religious people who vote Republican come to realize that while they have piously adhered to and advocated for principles like “Thou shall not steal,” their political task masters were robbing hard working, church-going Americans of their economic future? Imagine the disappointment of poor farmers in Kansas who support Republicans in the sincere belief that all their economic misfortunes are a result of their own failures and that any government assistance is corrupting. If these folks figure out that the conservative elites preaching the virtues of hard work, fair play, and economic individualism are the biggest and most successful rent-seekers and collectivists in history, they are bound to be pissed. It’s no wonder that these elites and their political henchmen are apoplectic about Newt’s “betrayal.”

If Newt’s inconvenient truth telling does shake the faithful, we may get something in this presidential election that no one ever expected; a semi-substantive debate about the actual practice of capitalism. Such a debate could call into question a number of conservative economic articles of faith. The absurd pretense that the only line business people shouldn’t cross in the pursuit of wealth is the letter of the law, for example, might draw scrutiny. The outright falsehood that all wealth creation (and only wealth creation) creates jobs would also be in danger. A personal favorite of mine is the constantly repeated claim that the “government cannot create jobs,” which, though flatly wrong, is a popular spin theoretically justified by the assumptions of supply-side economic theory.

If you choose to believe that all economic growth results from increases in supply, you can deceive yourself because “in theory” governments that “supply” goods and services do, by definition, artificially impact the efficiency of the private markets that also supply said goods and services. The economic reality, however, renders this theoretical/theological approach intellectually mute. The reality is that governments must supply, or subsidize the supply, of essential goods and services that cannot be adequately supplied by for-profit entities because there isn’t enough demand by individual consumers for such goods and services. Economists call these things “public goods,” the provision of which puts the government squarely in the role of economic catalyst and stabilizer, something economic conservatives choose to banish from their understanding of (or at least their rhetoric on) free market economics. All Americans support limited government involvement in markets, but only the deluded and deceitful believe that the proper level of involvement should remain constant, always viewed with the eyes of 18th Century Americans.

Another thing that cannot be adequately sustained by under-regulated markets is the necessary position of individual consumers who, for markets to actually be free in practice, must have considerable leverage in commercial transactions. In other words, for Smith’s invisible hand to translate into actual practice consumers must have complete information. Without sufficient information consumers cannot effectively perform their regulatory role. They cannot reward the highest quality/lowest price competitors, and thereby incentivize the rest to improve, without complete information. In commerce, information is definitely power and for a free market to be free, in both theory and practice, this kind of power must be in the hands of consumers, not producers.

The steady increase of complexity in the production, distribution, and function of economic goods and services decreases the individual consumer’s access to relevant information, aptitude for processing it rationally, and even interest in fulfilling her role as a rational consumer. If consumers can’t or won’t do their part the way the free market model assumes (self interested consumption that rewards good conduct and punishes bad), then the practical utility and moral justification for unregulated (or deregulated) markets disappears.

Economic conservatives get around this by simply pretending that consumers could choose to be rational and that their choice not to operate rationally constitutes a personal failing or personal decision to opt-out of a workable, fair, and useful system that should not be modified to help those who refuse to help themselves. They further argue that if the government assists consumers via regulations intended to protect them from commercial fraud, it actually reduces the consumer’s right – and moral responsibility – to discover and punish commercial misconduct as an individual consumer on a case-by-case basis. Commercial misconduct would be dis-incentivized by the possibility that customers would catch on and take their business elsewhere as well as by the fear of moral shame. It works like a charm, right? I’m sure anyone who’s purchased products supplied by companies in de-regulated industries, like telecommunications, commercial air travel, financial securities, and insurance can attest to how easy it is for consumers to maximize their leverage by shopping around or to shame a customer service representative into righting a wrong perpetrated by their company. Right? All Americans, not just Mitt Romney, enjoy the ability to fire folks who provide services to them. Right?

Finally, modern commercial markets are driven by demand, much more than by supply, which means that the key to job creation and economic growth is increasing consumer demand, not increasing the supply of investment capital available to entrepreneurs. Over the last couple of years the supply of investment capital has been almost limitless. The cost of such capital has plummeted. If economic conservatives were right about the function of free markets, unemployment would have also plummeted by now. Instead, the right wing spinners have manufactured and sold a totally ridiculous tail about how the government caused all our economic woes (i.e. it’s Fannie and Freddie’s fault). Quickly and repeatedly de-bunked by experts and practitioners alike, it’s a parable that requires strong faith in conservative rhetoric and weak intellect to believe. Stimulating demand puts economic power where it is supposed to be, in the hands of consumers, not producers. Economic conservatives only preach consumer choice – the ability to fire your insurance company for example – as a way to divide and conquer. Obviously, no rational producer wants the consumers of her product or service to have more leverage than she does in a transaction. The fact that so many Americans have been fooled into equating economic leverage with virtue and patriotism just goes to show that P.T. Barnum was indeed a keen observer of the human condition.

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Will Bain be the Bane?

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is the successful capitalist in the Republican presidential field. Unfortunately for the Governor and the Republican Party, many of today’s movement conservatives (a.k.a. the party’s base) seem just as likely to see business through a rigid moral lens as they do politics. Continue reading

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Almost Fell for a Coulter Head Fake.

The writings of Ann Coulter are a wonderful example of what happens when one’s audience and one’s critics never speak to each other. Indeed, Coulter’s “followers” delight in her and their disdain for her critics. Their faith in her wisdom is actually strengthened by the constant de-bunking of her feverish claims. Truly credible claims or insights from Coulter would actually jeopardize her marketability. Her niche wants nothing to do with reality-based analysis.

In the aftermath of this year’s Iowa caucuses, however, Ms. Coulter seemed to have gotten something right. Her latest column for (a lovely place to go for right wing paranoia and stupidity), is titled, “Iowa Shows Republicans Determined to Beat Obama.” It appeared that Ann Coulter agreed with me that Romney’s victory in the Iowa caucuses, however slim, shows that many Republicans understand that a Tea Party darling cannot win the White House in November. Well, at least you’d think we agreed on this until you get into the column. She writes, “Romney won — in a razor-close finish with another plausible candidate, Rick Santorum.” Ann sees Rick Santorum as a “plausible candidate,” which of course negates what seemed right about her overall assessment of the Iowa caucuses.

If I channeled Ann on this point I might say that her assessment of Santorum’s plausibility is comparable to Hitler calling Stalin a reasonable man. Rick Santorum is not a plausible general election candidate for any office in America requiring votes outside the Deep South. If Iowa propels Santorum enough to give him a real shot at the nomination, then my impression, which I briefly thought Coulter shared, would be proven wrong.

And so, once again Ann Coulter plays to type, pandering to the mob that has always been her meal ticket. It seemed so promising until I got past the headline. That Ann. What a tease.

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My Brother Jay

I was in my mid-twenties when I began to realize that my brother Jay couldn’t answer all my questions and solve all my problems. I was probably in my mid-to-late-30s when, thanks in large part to Jay, I began to understand that answers and solutions are decidedly over-rated. Understanding is a process without end. Success lay not in the resolution of investigation or trial, but in its advance.

Calling Jay a thoughtful man is like calling a decathlete athletic. Jay was a scholar in the truest sense of that word. No question, problem, or task was too great -or too small- for Jay’s slow and methodical approach. For Jay, speed was the enemy of satisfying experience, and the opportunity to share insight and humor with others was an experience too precious to be rushed. If a task couldn’t be accomplished slowly and with a running dialogue that included jokes, then Jay was not the man for the job. If, on the other hand, you were prepared to make a car repair, computer glitch, or even just a technical question a day-long affair that would include deep explanation, comedy, and frequent food breaks, then Jay was the best man for the job.

While looking on his computer for photographs the other day I encountered a password screen with the hint, “What time?” My first guess was the right one –“dinnertime.” In recent years, Jay made dinner time with our mom and with my family a weekly, if not daily ritual. It’s amazing that Jay stayed as thin as he did given how much he loved to eat. Not a fan of physical exertion, Jay’s brain was the only over-used muscle in his body. Of course, it’s important to remember how slowly Jay ate and how much of every mealtime was spend in joyful conversation rather than mastication. His only over-indulgence at the dinner table was in the love, laughter, and companionship of his friends and family.

Though famously introspective, Jay was no introvert. Always fascinated and stimulated by both the theory and practice inter-personal communication, Jay’s love of conversation and camaraderie was palpable. Like any little brother, I relished the opportunity to impress my big brother. Insightfulness and humor were required. Insightful humor, of course, was always the brass ring in this regard. It’s really only now that I appreciate the value of having spent a lifetime trying to earn one of Jay’s slow nods (signifying his appreciation of an insight) or a laugh. A combination nod and laugh from Jay was more valuable to me than I could possibly explain.

I am compelled to share a note received from a childhood friend of Jay’s who couldn’t be at his funeral. It makes clear that the profoundness of my brother’s influence was not bound by time, blood, or distance. He wrote, “It’s hard to explain how you can love and miss someone you haven’t seen in almost 20 years, but I’m sure you know it’s true. I m also sure this will change my life, hopefully in a way that will make Jay proud and keep him entertained — Jay always loved the fringe characters and I owe him a lot for that.”

By Jay’s example, we have all experienced the value of sharing life’s experiences with love, compassion, patience, and humor – This was his gift to us all, and by trying our best to pass this gift on to others, we will carry Jay with us forever.

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Four posts knocked out by SPAM

Scott Brown’s Path to Re-electionPosted on October 28, 2011
The Mayor’s RacePosted on October 27, 2011
Cultists & Capitalists: Strange Bedfellows?Posted on October 26, 2011
Politics for Dummies!Posted on October 24, 2011

Scott Brown’s Path to Re-election

Having spent a considerable amount of ink on the candidacy of Elizabeth Warren and the 2012 Massachusetts Senate race in general, I’m feeling obliged to consider Senator Brown’s particular path to re-election as well. While I do think Elizabeth Warren is well positioned both as a campaign and in terms of the situational advantages of running with the President in our bright blue state, Senator Brown’s status as the incumbent, as well as his ability to differentiate himself from the rest of the state’s Capitol Hill delegation clearly make him a formidable candidate.

So, how should Senator Brown “play it” next year? How can he avoid being defined by Warren as Wall Street’s errand boy; as Mitch McConnell’s toady? In other words, what does his campaign have to do to make independent voters see him as their handsome, bright, reasonable neighbor who drives a pick up and as “one of us” who is watching our backs in Washington?

First, this being Massachusetts, he has to convince libertarian leaning independent voters that he’s still a “Massachusetts” Republican, which of course is code for “not a social conservative,” without tipping off our state’s small but feisty Tea Party crowd. His special election victory was greatly aided by a passionate and well mobilized Tea Party effort in the closing weeks of the campaign. In fact, I think it may be fair to say that these folks responded like real Minute Men in 2010. Unfortunately, having to avoid hard right positions in the Senate has reduced his stock with this crowd a bit. Also, because in 2012 his election won’t be the only game in town, he can’t rely on a GOTV organization that literally descended on the state from all over the country in 2010 to push him across the finish line.

So, how does he avoid being too closely associated with Senate Republicans and their hope of gaining control of the Senate? This is tricky, because it may not be clear whether enough voters are susceptible to the argument that a vote for Brown is a vote for a right wing senate? If he can get a handle on this issue using his internal polling, then his choice will be more clear. Either he could ignore this line of argument from his rival so as not to elevate it. Or, if it appears that such an approach by Warren was gaining traction, he would be forced to try to be more assertive in his response. Ideally, he would be able to ignore the senate takeover argument and just respond somewhat indirectly to the notion that he might not be as independent-minded after being elected to a full six year term in the senate.

If the political environment in which the “Occupy Wall Street” movement is gaining steam has not receded by next year, the Senator’s re-election team will need to fight a sort of two front political war. Indeed, with Warren as his opponent, such an atmosphere would serve her in ways similar to the ways the anti-Washington, Tea Party atmosphere of 2010 served him. As a national anti-Wall Street champion, Warren can expect the kind of national attention and assistance from progressives that Brown got last time from conservatives, and although Warren’s won’t be the only game in town nationally, it will be the only game in Massachusetts. The ground troops in Massachusetts from the Deval Patrick and Barack Obama organizations will clearly be P.C.I.N.O’s, or Presidential Campaigners in Name Only. Progressive and Democratic Party energy and resources will flood into the Warren camp next year.

So what’s a Massachusetts Republican Senator to do, other than pray that efforts to discredit the “Occupy Wall Streeters” start hitting their mark? Clearly, Brown has to find common ground with the more reasonable policy implications of this economic populism, on the one hand. And on the other hand, he has to find a way to connect on a values-level with this movement.

My advice is to enlist former U.S. Senator and Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady as a campaign advisor and strategist. Brady’s recent Washington Post op-ed, titled “What, if anything, to do about Wall Street’s Wealth” was pitch perfect for the needs of our “Massachusetts” Republican. Brady scolds Wall Streeters who succumbed to the temptation to direct their energy and innovations toward non-productive financial instruments, calmly counsels against over-reaction without comparing protesters to the Jacobins of 1789, and touts the reasonableness and balance of his old boss George H.W. Bush, whose willingness to balance spending cuts with “revenue enhancements” was the politically courageous and economically right thing to do.

Massachusetts might be a perfect place for a Republican to try to associate himself with the elder President Bush’s contribution to the booming economy of the 1990’s. The fact that his unwillingness to cave into the irrational anti-tax crowd at that time may have cost him his re-election in 1992 is also a kind of win-win association for Brown, in that he needs independent voters to see him as similarly reasonable and principled.

The Mayor’s Race

The state’s third largest city is having a mayor’s race and to hear long time Western Mass journalists like Maureen Turner tell it, the question is does anyone know it in Springfield.

The race does have unusual significance in that the winner will be the first Springfield Mayor to serve a four year term. There doesn’t seem to be a shortage of woes or issues with plenty of economic dislocation in the wake of last summer’s surprisingly powerful tornado, rising crime rates, a high profile murder trial, a controversial schools superintendent who has already announced that he will be leaving at the conclusion of his present contract, and even an unfolding financial corruption investigation involving administrators at one of the city’s four public high schools.

What do ya have to do to get a little attention around here!?!

The conventional wisdom, well represented in the Maureen Turner column cited above, is that the challenger in this Mayor’s race simply doesn’t have the campaign chops to put up much of a fight. There’s no doubt that long time Springfield School Committeeman and City Councilor Jose Tosado is a soft spoken and dignified guy, but that doesn’t seem like enough to account for a three to one drubbing in the primary election at a time when many city residents are saving time by wondering what’s right, rather than trying to get a handle on what’s wrong.

What else could be happening here? Could the city’s myriad problems coupled with a sort of post traumatic stress in the wake of last summer’s unprecedented storm be making voters leery of a leadership shake up right now? It certainly wouldn’t be surprising to find many shell shocked city residents unmoved by the force of political winds this fall. In fact, Tosado himself set the tone for post-tornado politicking early when he announced, only one day after the storm, that he would be suspending his campaign so that all city residents could come together and focus on the clean up and on healing the community.

In hind sight, this may turn out to be a lot like John McCain’s decision to suspend his 2008 presidential campaign in the wake of the financial twister that struck in mid-September of that year. McCain never recovered and neither will Tosado unless he figures out a way to sling some serious mud at the Mayor without getting any on himself. Unfortunately for Tosado, in “defeating an incumbent 101″ challengers learn that they must define the incumbent as a failure early and often in order to weaken him and stiil have time to shift into positive self promotion mode and distance themselves from the dirt as Election Day nears. Tosado’s chances in this regard may have blown away with the trees across the street from City Hall. If so, his McCain-esque campaign suspension will amount to the strategic equivalent of shooting a dead horse. Of course, his own long service on both the City Council and School Committee limited his ability to credibly blame the Mayor for all manner of ills in the first place.

What about the fact that the next mayor will serve four years instead of two? Could this be yet another impediment to a “change” candidate running in uncertain times? Probably. If uncertain times cause average voters to recoil from uncertainty, a new Mayor that will serve twice as long as the old mayor is a hard sell. Also, because mayors of mid-sized cities like Springfield have quite a bit of institutional support and established relationships with the community’s well connected, Mayor Sarno’s patrons and appointees have twice as much incentive to re-elect him to a four year term.

At the end of the day campaign organization and a motivated get out the vote team will always be very hard to beat in a local election. Mayor Sarno has a well earned reputation for being an extremely hard worker with a disciplined and professional campaign organization. His re-election in a couple of weeks is a very safe bet, which is yet another reason why this race hasn’t raised many eye brows.

Cultists & Capitalists: Strange Bedfellows?

“Cut Government Spending Now!” This ubiquitous clarion call is clear enough, but its lack of precision quickly reveals the naked and narrow motives of its most vigorous cheer leaders. –My apologies to Governor Perry, I mean “yell leaders.”- Without clear and present specification of what government spending should be cut this catchy phrase is little more than a cultist’s chant used to distract and manipulate the enthralled.

The real problem is that the “enthralled” at the Tea Party séance are divided. Most aren’t really against much of the actual spending government does. Many of these folks have morality on their minds, not money. Their real target is a paltry 2 to 4 percent of the federal budget. Their problem is “welfare” by which they mean government aid to folks who don’t deserve it. As a sort of win-win bonus, they’ve been led to believe that lots can be saved by ending legal abortion and resisting the legalization of gay marriage. Others in this crowd, far less numerous than most assume, are the money men. They want to bankroll the roll back of the New Deal and cripple the government’s ability to regulate elite economic actors. For them, the “moral hazards” argument is all well and good, but hardly a primary concern. For them, this is primarily a financial investment in politics.

The thing is that for a broad swath of Americans to get behind real spending cuts you have to sell them on the notion that HUGE cuts are the only way to avoid catastrophe, and you have to specify which government activities will be cut. The religious right has never had much luck arguing that the welfare state was the road to Hell, so they’ve accepted the invitation to join forces with those who argue it’s the “road to serfdom.” What the heck. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, for now.

It boils down to this. Economic conservatives found a way to harness the passion of populistic-libertarians and social conservatives without fully explaining the plan to either group. Now, the Ron Paul faction of the Tea Party is waking up to the reality that they’ve signed on to a religious crusade, while those in the Glenn Beck wing are being awoken to the profane motives of those they thought were leading the charge to “take back America in the name of God!”

Strange bedfellows can be a novelty, but the morning after is a bitch.

Politics for Dummies!

Conservative columnist Marc Theison’s recent defense of Senator Rubio highlights the foolishness of making the personal characteristics of individual politicians and candidates the primary focus of public scrutiny. Rubio is being crucified for “lying” about his family’s flight from Cuba. It happened, but the exact year is apparently in question.

This type of political charge is what I have labeled, somewhat controversially, “Red Meat for Retards,” (R.M.R. for short). It has NOTHING to do with Senator Rubio’s public service, policy positions, or political philosophy. It is solely for the consumption of ignorant voters, whose political loyalties are driven by their emotions, not their intellect. When folks who know better engage in this type of “analysis,” they are acting as partisan tacticians or ratings grabbing “infotainers,” not as honest brokers.

The so-called “character” issue is actually the lowest level of relevant critical analysis. Its primacy in the media and in election campaigns is really quite simple to explain. This is the only level of analysis that the broad electorate can understand rationally. Debate about policy issues and/or ideas is simply not of interest to the general public, and as such, is not something the general public can critically understand. So why are average voters so easy to distract? That question is likely above my pay grade, but I can tell you from personal experience that any efforts to give such voters a reality check, results in charges of elitism and/or deeply personal rage at the thought of subordinating “values” like character in the determination of “truth.”

Political scientists, however, have long understood the relationship between an individual’s attribution of cause and effect in government and politics and that individual’s understanding of the political system.(1) Simply put, the more one blames and praises individuals in politics for policy consequences, the less they understand about the real workings of politics and our political system. Real life politics and public policy are far too complex to be reduced to a “good guys versus bad guys” narrative. A real understanding requires knowledge of the inter-relationships of many ideas, institutions, and interests. If you think a president or a party are to blame for economic woes or are responsible for economic success, for example, then you probably don’t really understand how politics or economics really work. If you think the “character” of a leader or party are even discernable by the public, never mind determinative of performance, then you are no doubt the patsy of political elites one way or the other. If your most sophisticated political opinion is something like, “throw the bums out,” you are probably not a good “go to” guy for the solutions to complex public problems.

It is at this intellectually immature level that political campaigns are waged. The folks who know what they are talking about don’t need campaigns at all, so the focus on the ignorant voter is actually a very rational strategy for candidates and parties, as long as the goal is understood solely in terms of electoral victory. Political scientists and commentators who lament the development of the so-called “permanent campaign,”(2) however, see the rationality of this electoral strategy as a very negative drag on actually policy formation, enactment, and implementation (i.e. governing).

1. See, Gomez, Brad T. & Matthew Wilson, Political Sophistication and Economic Voting in the American Electorate: A Theory of Heterogeneous Attribution. American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 45, No. 4, Oct., 2001
2. Ornstein, Norman, & Thomas Mann, The Permanent Campaign and Its Future. (Washington DC: AIE & Brookings, 2000).

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Moral Foundations Theory

I think quite a bit about how to create productive lines of communication between left and right. One of the most productive developments regarding the foundations of individuals’ political perspectives has been the insight that moral premises and assumptions play a very large role in determining one’s political values preferences. Continue reading

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Beacon Hill Bucks

Writing at, Steve Poftak asks: Whose Money Talks in Massachusetts Politics? His apparent purpose was to suggest that the folks of “Occupy Boston” might want to be careful of what they wish for on the theory that their complaints about the undue influence of big money on Beacon Hill would unintentionally hurt their own interests. Continue reading

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From the Archives

Originally published on 11-11-09

X + Facts = Reasonable Claim. Solve for X.

I have always encountered resistance to theoretical discussion and debate, both in the classroom and in the public square. Students and politicians fear it; voters have no patience for it, and reporters and pundits can’t sell it. Continue reading

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Pathways of Truth

The pursuit of THE TRUTH, A TRUTH, and TRUTH are the essence of religion, politics, and philosophy, respectively. They are the ends that justify the means of priests, politicians, and professors. The will and wisdom to see, understand, and respect the differences between these varieties of truth may be a good starting place in the effort to elevate our human conversation, which is too often beset by the failure (intentional and unintentional) to honor these distinctions.

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Angry and Angrier

The “Occupy Wall Street” protesters are clearly angry, but the folks who inspired them to take large scale grass roots political action appear to be even angrier. From their apologists in the media to their foot soldiers on the internet, Tea Partiers and right wingers in general are MAD AS HELL!!!!

One bit of irony that I can’t help pointing out about Tea Party anger at the Occupiers involves the similarities between the nature of their criticisms of the people protesting in the streets across the America today and the criticisms of the actual Tea Partiers in colonial Boston. It appears our modern day Tea Partiers have found their “royalist” side as they venomously spew their disgust with what they see as the dregs, mobs, and scofflaws now standing up to be counted. Imagine the real Tea Party Patriots cheering on British troops’ heavy handed crowd control efforts or defending the wealth of royal patrons. You can’t, can you?

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Warren versus Will on “Freedom”

George Will’s disagreement with Elizabeth Warren on the nature of the “Social Contract” is a priceless example of either Will’s total lack of self reflexivity or his utter lack of intellectual integrity. Continue reading

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The Next Steve Jobs

On my commute this morning I was listening to a radio discussion of Steve Jobs’ contributions to the world and the topic of American patents and intellectual property laws came up in the context of whether or not great American entrepreneurs could rise in a global economy. The issue is that American laws that have and continue to foster and facilitate entrepreneurialism are not legally binding globally, which could potentially hamper the ability of 21st Century American innovators to control their own ideas and products. American entrepreneurs of the 19th and 20th centuries had the protection of American corporate charters, patents,and trademarks, among other things, as well as the largest market for everything right here in America. The next Steve Jobs will not be born or created in such a nurturing and protected environment.

The interesting question is; Will 21st Century innovators do what their forbearers did in the 19th and 20th Centuries, which was to seek regulatory assistance and protection from government? If they do, from what governments will they do so? Corporate charters shield innovators from liability and free them to take the risks necessary to succeed, while patent and trademark protections guarantee that they will enjoy personal financial reward for their hard work and effort. The present right wing fantasy that government regulation is the enemy of innovation and the equally irrational fear of cultural conservatives that international rules of any kind would destroy America, present an interesting challenge to America’s hopes of remaining at the top of the economic heap in a global economy. America’s political, economic, and even military leverage can go only so far in extending our government’s ability to protect American business in a global economy.

On the other hand, maybe challenges of competing in a global economy with help provide an important corrective to the now popular American political narrative about the role of government regulation in fostering economic prosperity, which is that it need only get out of the way. Clearly, the great entrepreneurs of the 21st Century’s global marketplace will quickly realize that without enforceable rules of fair play in any market, neither productive competition nor creative innovation, are likely. Such rules fall squarely in the category of “public goods,” which is to say, something ONLY governments can provide.

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Politics Imitating Arts & Science?

In my class on the American presidency this semester my students are grappling with a very interesting and salient debate about the predictability of presidential election outcomes. Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia and David Campbell, now at Notre Dame University were the protagonists in a dispute that played out at academic conferences and in published articles in the wake of the 2008 election. The essential outline of their debate was published on Professor Sabato’s website, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, in dueling essays by Sabato, and Campbell

Sabato wrote, “Obama’s swift rise was certainly a surprise. Yet fundamentally, the November 4th outcome was completely predictable, and in fact we predicted it right here on the Crystal Ball many months prior to the election.” He concluded that “[t]he electoral conditions–the fundamentals I often call “the north stars of politics”–could not have been more clear or bright in the sky. The north stars that applied to the 2008 contest were presidential popularity, economic conditions, and war and peace.” Sabato, whose perspective has won more converts than his opponent’s in this debate, is essentially saying that an unpopular president in a bad economy, with an unpopular war going on is a guaranteed recipe for the defeat of the incumbent party in a presidential election.

David Campbell disputes the reliability of these factors in general and their applicability to the 2008 election in particular, arguing instead that the 2008 election was not predictable at all, but was rather a close contest that could have gone either way until the economic collapse of September, 2008, which Campbell claims pushed the electorate away from the incumbent party’s nominee John McCain and secured a relatively large margin of victory for Democrat Barack Obama. Campbell argued that 2008 represents a “derailed election” rather than an “ordinary” one in which broad factors like the economy and presidential popularity provide reliable guide posts for analysts and prognosticators.

Since this debate two things seem to have happened that could serve to renew and refresh it. First, as I alluded to above, the idea that a bad economy and low presidential popularity are clear signals of impending defeat for an incumbent president, or the incumbent’s party in a presidential election, has taken on the air of conventional wisdom among political scientists. But the second thing that seems to have happened may prove to weaken the force of this now widely accepted notion. A primary assumption of Sabato’s perspective on predictability is that voters reflexively blame presidents for poor economic performance and conditions. The Republicans in Washington, surprisingly enough, seem to have been listening to political scientists on this point since Obama’s election and have gone to previously unheard of lengths to obstruct the president’s efforts to stimulate economic growth, while openly declaring that their primary objective would be to “make Obama a one term president.”

If the Republicans have actually taken Sabato’s perspective seriously and asserted themselves in opposition to the White House with the goal of insuring poor economic conditions in 2012, then they may have unintentionally changed the dynamics of the 2012 election in ways neither Sabato nor the Republicans themselves would have predicted.

The assumption that presidents get all the blame for weak economic conditions is based on the idea that the president is the one out in front of the American people the most; the president is the one who dominates the popular political narrative through his various institutional advantages, such as the use of the “bully pulpit.” But have political scientists unintentionally become participants in their own experiments? If Republican tactics since Obama’s election can be traced to the political science research regarding the un-electability of incumbents during economic recession, then it may be that 2012 with prove to be a extraordinary election, despite the apparent existence of the factors Sabato calls the “north stars of politics.”

One potentially significant indication of this may be the unusually negative view of Congress by Americans presently. Very low approval numbers for Congress are routine, and don’t tend to translate into problems for the presidential candidate of the party most associated with congressional dysfunction. Americans always dump on Congress as a whole, but generally remain satisfied with their own particular member of Congress. However, recent polling on Congress shows that a sizable chunk of Americans now say that Congress stinks and that their own members don’t even deserve re-election.

What does this have to do with the predictability of the presidential race?

This unprecedented contempt for Congress is more salient to the race for the White House because it may indicate that unlike past election cycles, Americans may not see the president standing alone atop the national political mess. They may be blaming obstructionist Republicans in Congress more than they might have in the past.

Why would Americans blame Republicans in Congress for the perceived economic mess in 2012 when they never seem to have followed such a pattern before? Because the opposition party in Congress has never been so successful in capturing and dominating the national political narrative before, nor have they ever been so open and honest about their political motives; about their intention to obstruct; or as extreme in the lengths to which they were willing to go to disrupt and discredit the president and his party’s agenda. Unprecedented use of the filibuster, very bold and very public use of extortion tactics in budget debates and the debt ceiling fight, and an avalanche of conservative activism bolstered by conservative media outlets and interest groups have made the Republicans appear to be more than a feisty minority, and certainly less than a loyal opposition party that must endure the president’s agenda and merely criticize it from the sidelines. Republicans in Congress have been perceived during the last three years as powerful combatants for their agenda, and frequently as victorious combatants for their policy choices. This suggests the potential for the general electorate in 2012 to dilute their disgust over present economic conditions and to see the Republicans as part of the problem, since they seem to have been winning both the public relations war and many policy battles with this president from day one.

In other words, Obama may have an easier time blaming Republicans in Congress for our economic woes than political scientists would have predicted because he has not been perceived as a powerful rhetorical leader for his party’s agenda, nor has he gotton his way in many policy debates. Ironically, his perceived failures as a rhetorical president to direct and frame the national political narrative may actual redound to his benefit in 2012. His failure (or refusal) to counter Republican rhetoric and issue framing over the last three years may have contributed to right wing rhetorical excesses.

Having essentially kept his rhetorical powder dry, it may be that a newly energized Obama White House, using the bully pulpit effectively after three years of conceding the public relations battle to Republicans, who themselves have been pulled very far to the right (possibly in part due to the lack of a serious rhetorical opponent from the left), may be well positioned to capture and frame the public narrative of the 2012 election. A bold and unapologetic assertion of economic populism may be an excellent strategic approach to an electorate that has been bombarded for three years with unrebutted right wing culture war rhetoric. For example, the recent attempts of Republicans to trot out their “class war” talking points seem to have fallen flat. After three years of crazy rhetoric about socialism and communism, death panels, birth certificates, and other absurd attacks on the president by the Tea Party right, an FDR-style populist Obama campaign is surely better situated that the standard interpretation of the “north stars of politics” would have us believe.

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Defending David Brooks

Criticizing David Brooks seems to have become a cottage industry. From the left, he’s rebuked for intellectual superficiality and from the right he is a traitor to the cause. Why? I am a fan of David Brooks and think his critics, left and right, are ignoring some pretty good things about Brooks’ analysis and inflating elements of his work for which he should be forgiven.

First, let’s look at the critics from the left, primarily the academic left. They see Brooks as a dangerous dabbler in scientific and scholarly interpretation. To these folks, Brooks is a serial over-simplifier prone to dangerous reductionism of complex ideas and issues. To this charge I would remind folks that Brooks writes a newspaper column. He is not the editor of an academic journal, nor is he writing for an audience of experts. Furthermore, as someone who has been pointed in some very productive and interesting scholarly directions by Brooks’ forays into the cognitive sciences, I consider him a valuable instigator of serious thought, at a minimum. I think these academic critics are being unfair and are using inappropriate methodological standards in their assessments of Brooks’ analysis. I see Brooks as a productive public intellectual, whose work provides a broad audience with introductions to serious modes of inquiry. I fear that his critics from the left are confusing disagreement with disapproval. I also fear that their harsh criticism seems more intense when they are criticizing his conservative political conclusions, rather than those less partisan in their impact.

Brooks’ right wing detractors charge him with pandering to academics and liberal intellectuals, where I see him attempting to provide ordinary Americans with access to intellectually sophisticated thinking. He’s been called several versions of “the liberals’ favorite conservative.” because he occasionally disagrees with his party leaders. At a deeper level, conservative intellectuals may believe that he has falsely dichotomized intellectual sophistication and ideological purity. These criticisms, like those from the left, seem to me beside the point. If Brooks copped to all these claims he’d still be a valuable and interesting voice in the Washington punditocracy, and he would still be providing a distinct perspective and style.

To liberals, I say relax. Leave Brooks alone. He’s a conservative and that means he’s not going to agree with you every time. He’s also a columnist and that means he’s not writing for a doctoral committee or peer-reviewers enlisted by the American Political Science Review. Another thing liberals should understand, given their belief that conservatives in general are more tribal than liberals, is that he has to engage in partisan political analysis on occasion so Republicans will still talk to him, which is necessary if he wants to keep his day job.

To conservatives, I say wake up! Brooks reaches a much more general audience than most conservative pundits. If your badgering turns him into a Krauthammer, Thomas, or Sowell, then you’ll just have another opinion writer that only Fox News junkies ever read seriously. Brooks may go off the reservation on occasion, but he clearly checks back in periodically. Guys like Brooks and David Frum are bone fide conservative intellectuals that should never be alienated by a party or movement with very serious intellectual credibility issues. My God, look what has happened to George Will, once a highly credible conservative intellectual. I assume he’s still brilliant, but his columns in recent times have become erudite partisan screeds, long on impressive prose and short on logic or evidence.

Let’s stop beating up on the guy trying to provide something valuable to folks on all sides and on no side, and appreciate his efforts to integrate critical thinking and political analysis. I disagree with him more than I agree with him, but he (almost) always makes me think about issues and ideas differently. At the risk of being hammered for over-simplification and betrayal, maybe the fact that he routinely gets beaten up by both sides is good thing, both for his access to insiders and his access to independent and moderate readers.

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Yin and Yang, or Yikes?

Jason Linkins’ article in the Huffington Post about a recent CNN/ORC Poll provides more evidence for something political scientists have known for decades: Americans like conservatism in theory but liberalism in practice. They want a conservative government for the nation AND a liberal government for themselves (i.e. one that caters to their principles and practical needs). The poll reveals that Americans aren’t very enthusiastic about the President’s “American Jobs Act” at this point in time, but when alerted to the actual provisions of the bill, they are actually very supportive.

Linkins concludes; “these are the wages of the public’s constant exposure to horse-race politics, which place too much focus on political personalities, and not enough on policy. Here we have a jobs package packed with things the public supports, but they’re somehow less sure of the things they favor when they become attached to Obama’s advocacy, because approval of “Obama, political personality” is held in lower esteem than “Obama, policymaker.”

One of my college professors used to say about American voters; “they want Republicans to bake the economic pie, but they want Democrats to slice it.” Americans want to be personally associated with the symbols and values that are the bread and butter of conservative political rhetoric, but they also want the benefits of a government that is strong and capable of solving problems and making their lives easier. They oppose the idea of “affirmative action,” but very much expect affirmative action on the part of the government to improve their lives.

In the 2008 election, Republicans mocked and condemned “wealth redistribution” as socialism, yet Americans have long and continue to be very supportive of many programs and policies that redistribute wealth. In the present battle over economic policy the Republicans are focused on long term debt reduction and the Democrats on short term economic stimulus, and Americans agree. That is, they see debt reduction in the long term as a sound idea but they also see economic stimulus via government spending as good in the short term.

So what’s the take away? Well, as a Liberal Democrat I am tempted to champion the notion that America’s practical preferences and emergent concerns should trump their conservative principles. But, as a political theorist, I am compelled to remind folks that theory is very important and that principles held dear should not be simply disregarded when they conflict with our material interests. Dismissing them as “just theories” or as “out of step with the real world” or “facts on the ground” can lead to long term problems.

As a card carrying optimist, I want to highlight what should be a reassuring juxtaposition- A very familiar dance that speaks well (or at least used to speak well) of our general political system. Americans have always taken sides in politics, but more than anywhere else in the world (I think), Americans have always taken only one of TWO sides; left or right, and they have always leaned primarily on principles (theory) or personal experience (practice) in their political advocacy. When Democrats propose economic policy based on economic theory, Republicans complain that Democrats “have never met a payroll” or “don’t understand the real world of business and job creation.” Democrats do the same thing when Republicans lean on theory or principles, often couched in the language of values. They merely highlight the practical and personal perspectives of Americans in different venues, like workers instead of managers, customers instead of sellers or producers, children instead of parents, the weak instead of the strong. Both sides simply adopt the inverse of the other, at least for rhetorical purposes. When conservatives talk values, liberals personalize the debate by highlighting the personal suffering of those immediately hurt by conservative policy choices. When liberals talk about values, conservatives personalize the debate with equal fervor, highlighting the personal sacrifices of folks “playing by the rules” who are being left out or disrespected by liberal policy choices.

I basically agree with Linkins’ analysis, though I’m not sure that it’s fair to assume that principles, theories, or values-based perspectives should be discouraged or discredited as readily as he and I (in this case) are want to do. It seems to me we risk the perpetuation of a cycle that while comforting on one level, may be verging on vicious. If liberals don’t give a full hearing to conservative values, why should or would conservatives give a full hearing to liberal values?

Though I am comforted by America’s familiar and relatively narrow swings from left to right and right to left, I can’t help wonder about the fallout of the standard operating rhetorical procedure in American politics of countering theory or values-based arguments with practical or personal arguments (and vice-a-versa). Are we getting too much of a good thing? How much of the oft-lamented ignorance, apathy, and general distrust of the American electorate can be traced to the increasing professionalization and media saturation of this binary rhetorical playbook that looks to many like a cynical game in which principles and facts are just game pieces used interchangeably by every player? Have political partisans become so good and so quick in making their formulaic moves in this very predictable rhetorical brawl that even the most thoughtful and qualified voters are left dazed and confused? Maybe voters aren’t disgusted. Maybe they’re just punch drunk.

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Is it the “bully,” the “pulpit,” or the plan?

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank’s latest column, The Irrelevancy of the Obama Presidency, seems to indicate that whether or not the bully pulpit itself has lost its punch, its present steward seems to have lost his. Milbank’s description of the disrespectful behavior of Republicans, and even the overly informal behavior of Democrats in the chamber, paints a picture of a president whose efforts are seen as futile; as dramatic, but ineffectual. Milbank’s, a generally left of center pundit, laments this sad spectacle and as I first read his descriptive prose, so too did I.

The competition for influence among and between American political institutions and interests has always been of central concern to political scientists. Political scientists have chronicled and explained the evolution of presidential influence vis-a-vis Congress from 19th and early 20th Century impotency, occasionally punctuated by exceptions that proved the rule, to “imperialism” and media domination in the late 20th and very early 21st centuries. Most recently, the idea that presidential advantages like the “bully pulpit” are becoming less significant in our 24/7 communications environment were being looked at even before President Obama’s election.

It’s hard to argue, however, that president Obama has used the bully pulpit in the ways that it’s been used in the past, and therefore efforts to judge the state of this weapon in the White House political arsenal are, at least for the moment, confounded.

Two influential ideas among political scientists and political pros alike that may be more important to examine at present are about political timinig and political expectations. That “timing is everything” in politics and that “beating expectations” in the battle for public support are gospel truths respected by theoreticians and practitioners alike. Could it be that the Obama White House is playing these cards? Has President Obama consciously chosen to downplay the use of the bully pulpit because it no longer works well, or is he engaged in an effort to employ this once unparalelled weapon in a new way; a way adapted to the changed terrain of political argumentation and persuasion?

The narrative of ineffectualism and lack of moxy animating Milbank’s lament has dogged President Obama for some time now. Liberals lament, conservatives gloat, and a general sense of impotence hovers like a cloud over the White House. However, the Obama Administration did get more legislation through Congress in its first two years than anyone since LBJ, despite a filibuster happy Republican Senate minority. Lamenters and boasters alike counter that “Obama presided over a midterm election route in 2010 and has very low poll numbers as the 2012 campaign season gets into gear.” Conventional political science theory, which holds that economic conditions predict presidential elections with the precision of a clock, seems to provide no room for rebuttal.

But what about timing and expectations? Every political pro will tell you that political success is about the margin between expectations and performance, not some concrete measures of progress, and that candidates must peak, in terms of popularity and public support, at the right time. I would be interested to see how many relevant correlations can be found between the political position of President Obama now and that of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick 14 months before his re-election in 2010. I probably should assure readers not familiar with David Axelrod’s resume that my curiosity is not related to the race of either political chief executive. The common denominator here involves campaign strategy and tactics, but maybe most importantly, the same campaign strategy and tactics designerand manager, David Axelrod.

It is well known that the first Patrick campaign provided a test-run of sorts for many elements of the Obama 2008 campaign, and that the two candidates share many ideas, inclinations, and even speeches on occasion. The 2006 Patrick campaign employed the networking, fundraising, and GOTV strategies and tactics that would propel Barack Obama past both Hillary Clinton and John McCain in 2008. Fourteen months before a surprisingly easy re-election in 2010, Governor Patrick’s political obituary hadn’t just been written, it had been published repeatedly. Liberal disenchantment with the inspiring orator raise in Chicago, who just a couple years earlier had thundered “yes we can” to throngs of liberal admirers all over the state, was just as palpable then with Patrick as it is now with Obama. Indeed, many of the same folks I know that railed against Patrick for his betrayals are now attacking the president with equal fervor.

Many analysts trying to accout for Patrick’s successful re-election campaign blamed a weak Republican opponent and I personally blamed conservative misinterpretation of Scott Brown’s surprise special election victory. Is it possible that 2012 will see a weak Republican challenger? Could recent political surprises, like Tea Party victories over establishment Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats, combined with very low polls for the president and a terrible economy, create false confidence among Republicans, particularly Republican primary voters?

This aint exactly political science to be clear, but it may be worth thinking about, and it may even provide fertile ground for some political science research, to say nothing of political punditry and journalism.

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9/11 and Politics in Longmeadow

I have been summoned to a meeting of the Select Board in my sleepy little Western Mass suburb to weigh in on a proposal to hold a town sponsored 10th anniversary commemoration of the 9/11 tragedy. The problem, according to the town leader who summoned me, is that the organizers of the event are all members of the Republican Town Committee who have apparently planned the event with a transparently partisan motive and list of dignitaries. Continue reading

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Recently, I joined a couple of fellow political science professors in founding the blog, The idea was (and is) to write about Massachusetts and national politics from an academic perspective; to bring political science insights to political news and events on a daily basis.

The following are links to my contributions to the site so far.

Warren’s Candidacy

Redistricting in MA: More Questions than Answers

Advice to our Ex-Governor

The Pol and the Professor

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What the heck is a “political scientist” anyway?

A friend asked me this on facebook recently in response to a joke I made about having to try to act more like a “real” political scientist. This friend was no political novice either. She is a Democratic Party activist that has held positions of leadership in the party at the state and federal level and has been a high level campaigner for several presidential campaigns. Since my last blog post is a month old, I thought I’d try to answer her query here on my first day back in the office since June. The pile of pressing matters on my desk is simply too daunting to attack so early in the morning (it’s 10am).

Definitions of political science and political scientists are but a Google search away, however, I’ve been at this for 20 years so I should be able to develop my own. My definition of a political scientist is as follows:

A professional student of politics who employs scientific methodology in the study of the following topics (in full or in part) in order to improve human understanding of them, and to clearly explain what is known about them in both theoretical and practical terms to expert and lay audiences:

– Human behavior related to the governance of human organizations.
– The ideas, institutions, and interests at play in political contexts.

Discuss… :)

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Confusion over where people stand politically in America is one of the biggest frustrations of students of politics and one of the most serious obstacles to popular understanding of our political system in both theory and practice. Efforts to introduce greater precision to America’s political vocabulary tend to flounder because the folks with access to the lexicon of the masses, so to speak, have little incentive to increase clarity, and those who toil in obscurity cannot be heard over the din of competitive politics.

In the hope that the Information Age and its attendant democratization of mass communication have provided an opportunity to advance the cause of precision in the popular vocabulary of politics, I submit the following for your consideration.

-“Prudent” [insert ideological label here]

A “Prudent” liberal, conservative, libertarian, or whatever is:

One who accepts the competitive logic and nature of the American political system as well as the limits of human rationality; who advocates the careful (probably incremental) advancement of their preferred philosophical approach within the legal/tactical confines of the political system as the best way to advance both their philosophical principles and their political interests. The “prudent” ideologue sees good policy and good politics as symbiotic, not as an inevitable and regrettable struggle between principles and interests or effective means and principled ends.

In this construction the first part, “prudent,” identifies the acceptance or application of rigorous intellectual standards, including intellectual humility, which represents acknowledgement of the potential AND limitations of human reason. The second part (liberal, conservative, or whatever) identifies a substantive philosophical approach. Self identification as “prudent” should mean the embrace of principled policy making that includes partisan strategic and tactical considerations. At present, the preferred image in American politics is too often that of one who puts policy principles over politics. From the perspective of a “prudent” ideologue, this image is wrong in both theory and practice. It is bad for politics and bad for policy making.

The traditional left-right spectrum for identifying ideological views and positions has certainly fallen into widespread disrepute. Many now believe the spectrum obsolete because Americans’ political and ideological preferences are too diverse for such two-dimensional classification. I believe that the left-right spectrum can remain useful to our understanding of politics and ideology in America politics if only we tease out one particular missing variable.

This useful but missing variable, in my view, is intellectual methodology. The use of middling (or muddling) terms linked to ideological or political preferences like “moderate” or “centrist” are too vague and confuse ideological, political, and intellectual variables. Are all “moderates” really claiming to be part liberal and part conservative? What about those who use terms like “moderate” or “centrist” lacking of a more precise label, not because they favor a “split the ideological or political difference” approach, but rather because they favor the intellectually prudent integration of liberal and conservative ideas and interests and see this as optimal, rather than as compromising? For such folks and the methodological approach they favor, I believe “prudent” is an apt and potentially clarifying label.

Without understanding this variable Americans use the same label for ideas [or people] that represent purely short term political tactics as they do for ideas that result from intellectually rigorous and substantive decision making, which leads to the easy caricaturing of ideas or actors as either “political” or “ideological” which is understood to mean either purely self interested or unreasonably rigid and dogmatic. This over-simplification nurtures political alienation, philosophical confusion, and anti-intellectualism. By advancing a label intended to represent intellectually sound methodology in conjunction with particular ideological assumptions, I hope to generate greater appreciation of distinctions presently invisible to the broader public; distinctions that simply cannot be teased out or legitimized in our pugilistic, sound-bite information environment, in which ideology (a system of ideas, which are actually well thought out philosophical constructs) is widely misunderstood and the art of politics is seen as one of the “dark” arts.

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Happy Birthday America!

America is turning 235 this weekend and my kids will once again have to endure listening to their dad’s annual recitation of the Declaration of Independence (with accompanying commentary). As my kids get older (they are 3, 8, 11, & 12 now) my commentary becomes more important to the exercise. In addition to celebrating a great triumph and the endurance of America’s novel experiment in democratic governance, it’s important for kids to develop a mature understanding of the interplay of principles and interests that motivated our Founding Fathers and that animates their design of government.

As an Irish Catholic kid from Western Massachusetts whose grandfather worked for the Kennedy Administration I understand the tendency of folks to mythologize those they consider worthy of political immortality. In my own lifetime, conservative Americans have similarly deified President Reagan. The men who Americans refer to as the “Founding Fathers,” have long been depicted as possessed of superhuman intelligence, virtue, and foresight. On the Fourth of July such depictions are both understandable and consistent with the spirit of the occasion, but should never be mistaken for the enlightened understanding of a free people.

This celebratory selective memory may have a unifying affect on Independence Day, but too often it is allowed to go unchallenged or to be used as a weapon of political division the other 365 days of the year. This is unfortunate because it does a huge disservice to both these rightfully celebrated men and to the design of government they bequeathed us. Symbolism, simplicity, and ceremony have an important place in the maintenance of public morale and even enlightenment, but without openness and even encouragement of critical and systematic scrutiny, they can easily become the tools of the propagandist, who enlists these two-dimensional caricatures of the Framers and their creed in narrow-minded partisan schemes or crusades.

The pretense that the Framers are (or would be) unwavering supporters of one partisan approach or another amounts to the wrongful appropriation of the values that unite all Americans. The Declaration identifies the values that make up our Creed; the American Creed, not the conservative or progressive American creed. Freedom, Equality, Individual Rights, the Consent of the Governed, and Limited Government are values cherished by ALL Americans right, left, and center. That these principles are amenable to diverse definition and interpretation is their strength. Spirited and interested conflict within this overarching values consensus was clearly the very aim of the Founding Fathers.

As we pause to celebrate the most famous articulation of America’s Creed we should redouble our efforts to remember that no particular party, region, or group of Americans have superior title to it. Our children must learn that politics involves honest debate and disagreement about the proper meaning and application of each of these principles, not conflicts over the principles themselves. America’s creedal principles are hijacked and tarnished every time a politician or party claims exclusive ownership of them, or claims to be their defender against assault by other Americans.

Americans should all agree to stand united against the crass commercialization and the shameful politization of the principles that unite all Americans. No matter how frustrating and disagreeable one might find the interpretations of partisans of one stripe or another, no viable participants in American politics have ever opposed freedom, equality, individual rights, the consent of the governed, or limited government, in principle. The true genius of our Creed is that these values cannot be defined rigidly or acontextually. They are invitations to debate, not to dogmatism. Were it not so, our Republic would surely have faded into history by now.

Freedom is not a fact; it’s a value that by definition must welcome interpretive disagreement and debate. My Independence Day message to my children is to never mistake their political convictions for indisputable facts, or those of their political opponents for clear contradictions to American values. Indeed, in my view, the only un-American idea is the notion that there are any such ideas.

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New “Study” Jumps the Shark

A new “study” from the Beacon Hill Institute concludes that there is “No link between improved student performance and Education Reform Act spending.” The study actually recommends reducing education spending to the legally required minimum, which would have meant a reduction of $1.326 billion in 2010.

The researchers simply examined the statistical relationship between overall education spending and MCAS test results to see if there was any statistical correlation between the state’s annual spending total and the test scores. They found no significant statistical relationship between overall spending and overall test results in the state. From this they conclude that there is “no link” between spending increases and performance and therefore eliminating the increases would produce huge financial savings and no measurable reduction in student performance.

To say that these researchers have inflated the implications of their findings would be an understatement. Their findings, while ostensibly valid, are extremely narrow. To take their recommended action (cutting education spending by $1.326 billion) seriously, one would have to pretend that statewide MCAS scores and spending totals are the only two relevant variables in the resources/ performance equation.

Their finding is not without value. It should be framed as a useful first step in a systematic effort to evaluate how well we are utilizing our education resources. Pretending that it provides a data-based argument for massive education spending cuts, however, borders on academic malpractice.

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Manufactured Issues Waste Time & Energy

Making a political “issue” out of intelligence is a very silly thing in my opinion. Professor William Jacobson of Cornell Law School wrote a thoughtful blog post about recent criticisms of Sarah Palin’s comments while touring Boston’s “Freedom Trail.” To fairminded observers, Mrs. Palin’s comments were small talk and vague topical comments that are common fare for touring politicians. She was walking, talking, and signing autographs, not engaging in serious debate or conversation. Her speaking style and apparent lack of specific knowledge frequently serve her detractors well, but Professor Jacobson decided to look a bit more closely at Mrs. Palin’s claims regarding the role of Paul Revere. What he found is that a literal transcript of her comments holds up better to our historical knowledge of Revere’s role than her in-person comments and demeanor would have one believe.

What value does Professor Jacobson’s clarification have for us? Is it evidence that Mrs. Palin has a command of the history in question and that it’s her critics who should have egg on their faces? Not exactly, though her critics on this point should not be proud of their efforts. However, it does point up the folly of making issues out of personal foibles.

Mrs. Palin’s political success has not and will not be impacted by her intellectual prowess or lack thereof. Indeed, her popularity is clearly due, at least in part, to her very ordinary intellect. She connects with average Americans because they can imagine themselves being treated thusly by the media and by political opponents.

Everytime political critics focus on the personal characteristics or capabilities of politicians, they enter an intellectual twighlight zone where logic and evidence become window dressing in an endless and inane tit for tat. These criticisms of Palin are just as superficial and meaningless as her bus tour.

Sarah Palin ain’t no rocket scientist, but politics ain’t rocket science. This type of “news” belongs in the tabloids, not in serious journalistic venues.

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The Democrats believe they have the magic bullet in their attacks on Paul Ryan’s plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program. Republicans, save Newt Gingrich, seem to be doubling down on Ryan’s plan as if they know something about the American electorate that the Democrats do not. Fascinating!

Ryan’s plan would not “end” Medicare, but it may well end Medicare “as we know it.” The basic idea is to eliminate the “single payer” aspect of Medicare and make individual beneficiaries into subsidized customers in the health insurance private market. For everyone who fancies themselves libertarians or small government conservatives, or advocates free markets, the plan should be a perfect fit. The infamous Tea Partiers who said they wanted government to keeps its hands off their Medicare should be on board since they will be freed from government administration and allowed to do their own shopping; to cut their own deals as individual consumers. (I can’t help but wonder how many such folks are members of Sam’s Club or Costco.)

When Ryan supporters say that this plan will “strengthen” Medicare they mean that it will reduce the cost of Medicare to the US taxpayer and help avoid insolvency. In order to say that it will be beneficial to actual Medicare beneficiaries, we must assume that without it the program will go broke and beneficiaries will lose coverage. If this assumption is accepted, then subsidies for future beneficiaries that cover less still constitute a strengthened program because without it beneficiaries would get even less. In other words, properly qualified and explained, the Ryan plan to change Medicare to a voucher program DOES strengthen Medicare. And, if the increasingly popular rhetoric of the Tea Party and free market conservatives really represents the policy preferences of Republican and Independent voters, then the Ryan plan should be good Republican politics.

The Democrats, however, do not believe that anti-government, unregulated free market principles actually represent the policy preferences of anything close to a majority of the electorate. They believe and are also betting on the notion that voters only dislike government programs of which they are not beneficiaries, meaning that they support free markets and competition in general, but not when these things will take money out of their own pockets. So, when Democrats say that Ryan’s voucher plan will “end Medicare as we know it” they mean that it will reduce the proportion of the medical costs covered for future beneficiaries. In order for this argument to make sense, we must accept the premise that Medicare will not go broke, or be forced to “ration” benefits.

Intellectually, this debate is a fairly straightforward argument about the relative economic merits of centralized or bulk purchasing and individual consumer choice. Americans routinely express preferences for the former in their capacities as private consumers, and the latter when acting as paying customers of government services. The present debate in American politics, as reflected in the fight over the Ryan plan, appears to pit the practical (or self interested) preferences of most Americans against the theoretical (or principled) preferences of most Americans.

Republicans, with the strong “encouragement” of the Tea Party, appear to be betting on the capacity and willingness of American voters to rise above their short term economic self interests and to take a stand for American free market and limited government principles. Democrats clearly assume that most Americans do not have such passionate devotion to these principles. They assume that most Americans support the modern welfare state created by the New Deal and Great Society programs of the 20th Century.

If our governing institutions become so constituted as to facilitate a showdown on this fundamental point, whose interpretation will prevail? How have so many Americans become so passionate about abstract principles (left and right) and so willing to actively express such passion despite apparent behavioral contradictions? Could it be that the explosion of “niche” mass media has allowed many Americans to unit their intellectual worldviews with their actual view of the world?

If the Framers design holds true to form this imagined showdown will never happen, though ironically, the preservation of Madison’s handiwork may well depend on the strengthening of institutions that he consciously chose to avoid in the “Great Charter of 1787;” political parties. More on that later.

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The “Spouses” Debate

Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels has officially made his wife “fair game” in his potential run for the Republican presidential nomination. Her highly anticipated speech yesterday garnered plenty of press, the vast majority of which had nothing to do with her remarks and everything to do with her potential role as a presidential campaign spouse. While I cannot help but sigh when I hear pundits and journalists “discussing” spouses and past infidelities and other personal issues in the lives of candidates for high office, I also understand why such issues will always be both news and relevant to the choices of average voters.

The recent release of the “Nation’s Report Card” on civics education, which once again indicated a less than impressive grasp of American government and politics by America’s high schoolers (i.e. future voters), along with the Pew Center’s latest typology of the American voter, ratify the conventional wisdom that Americans “hate politics” and that they do not understand our policy process. Very few people, in my opinion, will seek to comprehend something they hate that requires focused study. With politics, however, there is a powerful tug on middle class voters to give it at least some attention. A sense of civic duty as well as at least an inarticulate sense that they have a stake in electoral outcomes drives a healthy chuck of voters to the polls, especially during a presidential election.

So what criteria do such voters use to make judgments about politics in general, and candidates in particular? Like all of us, they use what they know and what they understand to develop their opinions. Like it or not, that means “candidate-centered” analysis. Whether the commercial media’s focus on candidate characteristics and personal lives is the chicken or the egg is less relevant than the clear fact that such coverage attracts media consumers, and provides average voters with the bulk of the information they will use to make (or at least defend) their electoral choices in November.

Political analysts, scholars, and operatives understand this situation as non-rational, maybe even irrational, but they also know that any cure for this sub-optimal reality would be “worse than the disease.” And so popular politics is conducted along side of rational politics with the full knowledge of the elite participants that a careful balance of the two worlds is the key to success.

For two centuries American political parties have provided the bridge between the irrationality of popular politics and the rationality of what political scientists call “interest group pluralism.” Average voters have been herded into one of the two major party coalitions with every trick in the book, while elected Republicans and Democrats balance the need for re-election with their desire to advance their rational view of governance. In other words, parties have traditionally translated irrational and non-rational views into policy agendas susceptible to compromise. Indeed, political scientists have long maintained that organized political parties are the only institutions capable of translating mass public opinion into workable public policy.

The ability of political parties to harness irrationality for rational use has always been our system’s most potent inoculation from popular irrationality. And so whether its Martha Washington’s teeth or Bill Clinton’s unconventional use of interns :), American government generally makes policy decisions for policy reasons. So, as long as the two major parties can accomplish this, presidential spouses will be useful in elections and harmless in governance.

The real issue to worry about is whether the two major parties CAN still serve their traditional function in our system. The influence of special interests, and particularly their influence on the policy agendas of the two major parties, may be weakening our party system, a system that Richard Hofstadter taught us makes an unworkable constitution workable. If our major parties become too thoroughly captured by narrow interests and/or coalitions, serious destabilization becomes a real possibility. The present irrationality of House Republican policy proposals may be the proverbial “canary in the mine” for our party system.

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Yin and Yang or Supply and Demand?

The acrimony of today’s polarized politics in America may be frustrating, but at the end of the proverbial day Americans always come down on the side of practicality, not principles. The Constitution’s framers genius was their elevation of interests to parody with principles. Their heavy reliance on the former as the key to the endurance of their democratic experiment is well understood by scholars, but qualifies as the mother of all “inconvenient truths” for political combatants.

On economic policy, this means that all the patriotic rhetoric and high minded rugged individualism stops when government programs that benefit the middle class (the voting majority) are threatened. Social Security, Medicare, home mortgage interest deductions, and the like contradict all of the popular rhetoric and will never be brought into compliance with the principles behind this rhetoric because to do so would be to take material benefits away from the voting majority. On social welfare and foreign policy, high minded rhetoric about morality, compassion, only resonates with the voting majority when the ideals remain abstract. Indeed, if the Marshall Plan, New Deal and Great Society had to be paid for at the local level through property taxes, the entire world would be a much less prosperous and humane place.

Debates between caricatures, “socialists versus predator capitalists” for example, are quite literally a side show. That’s not to say that they are irrelevant, or that the stakes are low. This side show fuels quite a bit of economic activity and is the dominant battle ground for institutional power in America. Like it or not American politics at the national level is transactional. Harold Lazwell’s memorable definition of politics as “who get what, when, and how” remains descriptively indisputable in Washington, D.C. What this means, of course, is that on national policy (at least) the competing “special interests” will always have to stop short of total victory lest they inadvertently unite the American middle class. When they do step over the line voters rise up and hit the reset button, then recede to the bleachers to enjoy the new show.

There is, however, one worrying aspect of this narrative of balance. The decline of civic knowledge and the increasing quantity of and receptivity to political misinformation, fueled by a commercial mass media that no longer provides the whole country with a virtual town common, has not caused our polarization, but, it has increased the volume, intensity, and reach of the side show. While American politics has always reset and returned to “normalcy” when one side goes too far, the impact of this side show going virtual, so to speak, is causing what might be called the “commercialization of truth.” Today, average Americans of all stripes hold beliefs about objectively verifiable facts that are simply wrong.

Obviously, this has always been so. What has not always been so is the easy availability of putatively authoritative confirmation of these misperceptions of fact, as well as the increasing difficulty of discriminating between credible and non-credible information sources. The commercialization of truth has been fueled by the commercialization of expertise and of intellectual credibility. Average Americans are left without the wherewithal to distinguish between fact and fiction on issues fundamental to our national character and our national policy.

Amazingly, I suspect every American understands one very practical way of increasing their capacity to distinguish fact from fiction. The remedy comes from the cause. If hyper-commercialization and a flooded market for truth claims are creating this problem, then Americans should simply remember that when you are shopping for information “you get what you pay for.”

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Responsible Citizenship is a Paradox

American democracy is inescapably a liberal democracy, which unlike social democracy, places primary responsibility for maintaining the balance between social order and personal freedom on individual citizens acting in their capacity as responsible democratic citizens. Each American is called upon to define her own role in America’s ongoing experiment in self-government. While any government is by definition engaged in collective action undertaken on behalf of a community, Americans are called upon to exercise individual responsibility in order to achieve collective goods. Americans are expected to incorporate the virtues of self reliance, the vigorous pursuit of self interest, AND civic duty and self sacrifice in their understanding of individual responsibility.

More than any other society in human history, American citizenship, understood as individual responsibility, involves the maintenance, indeed the cultivation, of internal contradictions. Like the constitutional system designed by the Framers, responsible citizenship depends on perpetual motion, or ongoing reflection and reconsideration. Debates that pit self interest against the public interest in America are not supposed to be “settled” or “resolved.” On the contrary, they are supposed to be advanced. Somehow, Americans are supposed to maintain personal commitments to competing notions, without abandoning either. Proverbial wisdom like, “it’s not about winning, but rather how you play the game” must find a place alongside equally compelling aphorisms like “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

Responsible citizenship in America, like the concept of responsibility itself, requires the ongoing acknowledgement and examination of an internal paradox. To be responsible can mean two very different things. In one sense responsibility means accountability, which implies a willingness to be punished by an external authority if one’s actions, decisions, or behaviors are deemed inappropriate. As citizens we acknowledge this type of responsibility by obeying the laws. Political leaders assume this type of responsibility when they take credit or accept blame. On the other hand, responsibility can also involve “agency,” which means personal ownership of one’s actions, decisions, or behaviors. In this sense, responsibility is located primarily within the individual and is embraced as an embodiment of one’s identity or character. Its cultivation does not depend on the acceptance of external authorities. Upon reflection, it is clear that both understandings of responsibility are important, appropriate, and contained in the idea of individual responsibility embraced by all Americans. It is also clear that these meanings are paradoxical; one relies on internal enforcement and the other, external enforcement. Clearly, individuals who engage in public spirited activities as an expression of their internal moral code, or character, without the need for external approbation tend to be looked at as heroic, as patriotic, and for good reason. On the other hand, leaders who are willing to be held accountable to legitimate authorities, like voters, are also viewed positively. Apparently, Americans like people who can’t be bought AND who hold up their end of the bargain. However, deeper reflection reveals that each of these notions of responsibility, when understood in isolation from the other, produces troubling pathologies.(1)

If Americans understand responsible citizenship as merely an acknowledgement of accountability to an external authority (in politics, this usually means voters), then politics and citizenship become obsessed with credit claiming and blame avoidance. Notions of right and wrong are reduced to legal or illegal, and misbehavior and mistakes are only bad if you get caught. The very popular notion that every political consultant treats as the gospel truth; that “perception is reality in politics,” is a by-product of this impoverished notion of democratic responsibility. In a political environment where everything is measured as a victory or a defeat for someone, or where the competitors become the focus of attention to the exclusion of the ideas at stake, it is not hard to see how this one-sided notion of responsibility, and by implication responsible democratic citizenship, can lead to a debased and de-valued notion of political engagement.

The idea of responsibility as emanating from within, as an element of one’s character, can also have pathological effects when it is not properly balanced by its corollary notion of responsibility as accountability. Narcissism, characterized by “posturing about personal values in order to deny the legitimate constraints of authority,” can result from the wholesale rejection of responsibility as accountability to external authority.(2) Younger Americans, disgusted with what they see as the constant petty, self interested, bickering of politics may fall prey to this pathology of internally motivated responsibility. In the debate about the political engagement of younger Americans, claims that these generations are choosing direct action as an expression of their more cosmopolitan values, while rejecting the selfishness and narrow-mindedness of politics, are joined by studies indicating that American college age citizens are “more narcissistic than ever.”(3)

The idea that Americans must choose a model of citizenship that puts a premium on the systemic benefits of rationally self interested citizens, OR one that relies on the internalization of civic obligation and selfless sacrifice is ubiquitous in American life. The assumption that notions of internally and externally motivated responsibility are mutually exclusive provides an ill conceived conceptual basis for political arguments of all kinds, including scholarly debates about civic participation. Unfortunately, this two-dimensional view of responsibility presents political engagement and questions about good citizenship as a false choice between two incomplete notions of responsibility. A better choice, a choice that preserves and advances the debate rather than debasing it, involves recognizing the inseparability of both meanings of responsibility. Instead of pitting one meaning against the other, we should instead be critical of the expression of one meaning to the exclusion of the other. Understanding irresponsibility as an incomplete expression of responsibility would enhance both the civility and productivity of political debate in America.

We have to come to grips with the reality that in a democracy it’s not always better to act on behalf of the public interest according to one’s conscience and without regard to external approval (or public opinion). This approach can sometimes produce heroism and is commonly understood as politically courageous. However, when it is not accompanied by its corollary, responsibility as accountability, it is anything but a “profile in courage.” Self-righteous and self congratulatory claims of conscience or principle from politicians whose re-election is all but guaranteed by the numerous advantages of incumbency (or by professors whose job security is all but guaranteed by tenure) hardly exemplify a useful notion of responsibility.

If a politician really ignores the polls and does “what is right,” then she must not interfere with the public’s ability to judge her choices. The possibility of being held accountable must be real, not merely possible. It’s not hard to see how one might become increasingly cynical about politics and frustrated at the difficulty of making a difference if this is the way one perceives the actions of public officials. On the other hand, leaders who seem to be slaves to public opinion, refusing to challenge their constituents, also produce frustration and cynicism in reaction to what looks more like political followership than leadership to most Americans. Embracing uncritical accountability to majorities of voters reduces political debate to marketing and citizens to customers. From this perspective conscience-based political activity is for suckers.

By understanding the two competing notions of citizenship as what is called an antinomial paradox, you can much more clearly understand what is really at stake in American politics, and more easily identify ways to bridge political differences among Americans. Furthermore, this more precise understanding of responsible democratic citizenship contains valuable insights that can be employed to counteract feelings of cynicism, political powerlessness, and alienation that have reduced the willingness of many Americans to engage in expressly political activity.

1) This discussion of responsibility is entirely reliant on Michael Harmon’s Responsibility as Paradox: A Critique of Rational Discourse on Government. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1995)
2) Michael Harmon, Responsibility as Paradox: A Critique of Rational Discourse on Government. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1995), p. 93
3) The study, conducted by Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University, received considerable attention in the press and its findings are chronicled in, Twenge, Jean, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (New York: Free Press, 2009).

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Faith-Based Politics

The following passage is from a column by the conservative pundit Cal Thomas’ in which he declares the movie version of Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged” prophetic:

In an age when overspending, overreaching, higher-taxing and overregulating government increasingly strangles the private sector, robbing us of our liberties and transforming the country into the model of a socialist state, Rand’s story reminds us how far ahead of her time she was and just how dangerous a time we live in now.

For many Americans today, familiar or unfamiliar with Rand’s “objectivist” philosophy, this passage is either typical partisan spin or an article of faith. For honest intellectuals of all stripes, it is as anti-intellectual and unreasonable as any faith-reliant claim about tangible, real world conditions could be. It represents a vision of the world that is crippled by fanciful assumptions about both human nature and human behavior, assumptions long understood to be naive, counter-factual and counter-productive.

Unfortunately, we Americans are a stubborn lot and those of us who have chosen this brand of political faith, which distorts history, economics, and even contemporary economic and regulatory conditions, will not be moved by reason. Only deeply felt experience can shake faith. The realization that one has been played for a fool by a slick preacher only happens after the tents are struck and the snake oil salesman has left town; when the implications of this faith collide with concrete personal experience.

Financial deregulation can easily be understood as freedom, until your life savings are stolen. Homosexuality is easy to revile until you find out people you love and respect are gay. Pretending the government is the big bad wolf is both incredibly easy and one of the most American conceits imaginable. Lionizing rugged individuals battling the mob will always be a winning story line in America and every huckster will always discourage his marks from joining forces, consulting with others, or looking too closely at the real world incompatibility of their “principles” and your interests.

The thing is, in real life there are two very simply ideas that no one refutes: In politics, business, and in life, there is strength in numbers, and conversely, it is wise to divide your foes, opponents, or competitors. These lessons are easily forgotten while being constantly encouraged to celebrate individualism and independence, but it is never lost on those doing the encouraging. Easy too is the drunken worship of abstract principles when they are not presently in conflict with material interests. Our self righteous chants of “don’t tread on me” feel great tonight, but what feeling will the morning bring? Many of the folks footing the bill for this “tea” party (some of whom were born of judicial fiat and delivered by five midwives of the Supreme Court) know full well that once the only organization with the legal power to act on behalf of everybody is vanquished; once the only organization that could actually be influenced by every American, regardless of the size of their bank account, is demonized and crippled, then they will be the only ones with the numbers that count. Might will always trump right and the idea of a government by the people will become the uncontestable reality of government by some people; the good people, the smart people; the successful people; the people with the right values. Are you sure you’ll be one of them?

If my little tale angers or offends you, then you will probably like the movie version of Rand’s prophesy, never suspecting that its pandering to your self confidence, your ego, and your underdeveloped understanding the relationship between theory and practice, capital and labor.The reality is that the movie’s makers are simply updating a piece of powerful propaganda for their 21st Century target audience.Their goal is to distract folks from those basic and incontrovertible lessons of life that become most clear only after you’ve been taken advantage of.

Don’t forget the butter on the popcorn.

P.S. The movie version of Rand’s novel did very poorly at the box office. It would seem that the target demographic prefers their propaganda in smaller bytes.

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You Get What You Pay For

I have not posted in almost a month and when I considered the reasons for this lack of activity the reason I kept coming back to was that I hadn’t had anything significant enough or insightful enough to justify a blog post. As the implications of this realization began to sink in I was reminded of what I like least about 24/7 cable news and commentary. Most print, TV, and radio pundits have to produce “analysis” for publication as often as five days PER WEEK!

The oft-lamented low level of intellectual sophistication and high level of political partisanship that characterizes media punditry is usually linked to the need to pander to poll-tested target audiences in a battle for rating and political influence. It seems to me, however, that if a political science professor can’t produce two thoughtful commentaries in a month, how could anybody do it almost daily?

Americans hungry for analysis and information about government and politics can access a wide variety of such commentary 24/7 and from every conceivable angle. The market for punditry is flooded and like any market with excessive supply, prices are extremely low.

Admittedly, I may just be rationalizing my own lack of productivity or laziness here, but frankly I sincerely believe that commercial media consumers of news and information about government and politics are definitely proving the old adage; “you get what you pay for.”

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“It’s Hard to be Smart”

I have often spoken and written about my wife’s experiences as a Marine Corps officer. One of my favorite dictums from her leadership lexicon is the phrase “It’s easy to be hard, but hard to be smart.” In her efforts to help young Marines navigate their careers and their lives she frequently reminds them to keep this distinction in mind.

Today, this saying came to mind as I considered the poor quality of political knowledge and dialogue in America, primarily in the mass media and among those relying on the mass media for information. The second part –“it’s hard to be smart” – now stands out to me as an important insight that could serve as a warning or reference point for anyone trying to think clearly and reasonably about government and politics in America today. If we all remind ourselves that “it’s hard to be smart” we may be more attentive to the quality of the information on which we are relying for our political opinions and policy positions.

When we find ourselves in passionate disagreement with each other, we often allow our viewpoints to stray from relevant assumptions and contexts. We stray from reason, logic, and relevant data into political rhetoric that is designed to win arguments, end debate, rather than to advance thoughtful debate. Although the quality of academic debate among relevant scholars (poli sci, econ, hist, etc…) is significantly better, it too eventually degenerates into a contest with perceived winners and losers.
If we could encourage people to make “it’s hard to be smart” a regular sign post on their intellectual journey, maybe we can get more folks to stop and question the quality of the assumptions and information on which they are relying, in the voting booth and in the workplace.

As a political scientist I am frequently frustrated by the chasm between factual matters and the perceptions of both political elites and ordinary citizens. Disagreement over the meaning of facts is both reasonable and productive, but disagreement over obectively verifiable facts is absurd. On the radio this morning I heard commentators discussing Gov. Mike Huckubee’s recent comments about the President “having grown up in Kenya” and how that gave him a perspective “different than average Americans.” Huckabee says he simply misspoke and meant to say Indonesia (where Obama spent 4 years of his childhood), but if that were true then why did he refer to Obama having a “different” perspective about the Mau Mau Revolution, which occurred in Kenya in the 1950s? (Thanks Google)

If Governor Huckabee had just given his clearly pre-packaged claims a little more thought; one more “quality control” step, he would likely have avoided a very embarrassing episode. Instead, he relied on bad information from what we can imagine was a very partisan political source. The most interesting question may be, however, how politically passionate Americans respond to episodes of naked stupidity by their leaders and political allies. Was Huckabee merely reflecting the poor thinking habits or fraudulent information sources of his target audience? Do partisan voters simply play political defense when one of their own blows it like this? Or, do they take the opportunity to do some quality control of the assumptions and information they have and are relying on, especially those generated from sources used by the offending leader?

There’s nothing wrong with defending the shared political perspective of a leader exposed as an intellectual lightweight, as long as you also take the time to subject your political assumptions to systematic scrutiny. When a liberal, conservative, Democrat, or Republican turns out to be intellectually lacking or credibility-challenged, it is not reasonable to assume that his or her ideology and/or party philosophy is also lacking or fraudulent. It is, however, a valuable opportunity for thoughtful Americans to question their own perceptions about government and politics, if only to insure that they have not been deceived.

Sure it’s hard, a bit time-consuming, and potentially embarrassing, but being smart about your politics; periodically making sure that your principles and interests are compatible and logically consistent, pays off big in the long run. It is also vital to the long term survival of our way of life, making it, in my opinion, an act (hopefully a habit) of patriotism.

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I “pity the fools.”

It seems that harsh truths are in vogue presently. Sadly, I’m seeing a lot more harsh than truth.

Whenever, anti-government and anti-public service demagogary begins to take hold in American politics I am tempted to suggest that everyone who thinks that their tax money is being wasted and that they are overtaxed be allowed to choose a different arrangement.

Why not let citizens of a localities, states, or even the United States, convert to a sort of user fee or fee for service arrangement with their various governments. Instead of being part of a collective effort to maintain order, protect property, and provide public goods, these folks could shop for the services their government provides on the open market. The rest of us could benefit by having governments compete for these folks’ business, charging them a “fair market rate” for services provided.

This would actually allow anti-government folks the exact level of personal freedom that they constantly clamor for. How quickly would these folks choosing this “freedom” come crawling back when they realized how much actual benefit they get in exchange for their tax payments? It is indisputable that if these “self reliant” folks had to get what they now get from the government in the “free” market, they would quickly go broke, and since they wouldn’t qualify for government poverty assistance, they would probably have to band together and help each other out.

Initially, this might work out; they would learn the true benefits of collective action, while still feeling free from the “nanny state.” Of course, as these communities grew, they would begin to face internal conflicts over resource allocation, membership, organizational leadership, and policies. Some will no doubt begin to view these communities the same way they did American governments…….

I assume you are getting the gist at this point. Why not save everyone a lot of hassle and just take a sober and reasonable look at the value individual taxpayers get in exchange for their tax payments? Why not simply acknowledge the indisputable fact that Americans’ taxes are the lowest in the developed world? Why not shift the debate to where it really is, which is not about how much, but rather about who, what, and how?

Way too many Americans have been duped into becoming stooges for elite interests, who fill their heads with ideological nonsense designed to distract them from their fundamental self interests and their collective interests as citizens in a commercial republic. Powerful interests in America cloak their material self interests in the language of morality, cultural values, and above all, the language of individualism. Amazingly, they have convinced many Americans that they would be better off on their own. They have conned many Americans into supporting their own subjugation in the name of higher order “values.” They have essentially divided middle class Americans in order to weaken the will and ability of the majority to rule in the interests of the majority.

All politics is collective action, and any grade schooler understands that there’s strength in numbers, and yet the number of Americans freely choosing (or so they think) to weaken their influence over their own lives, careers, and destinies is truly remarkable. The self righteous folks presently attacking school teachers, public works employees, public health professionals, and many other public servants around the country illustrate the frightening susceptibility of ordinary people to elite manipulation. These folks actually seem spiteful over the fact that unionized workers resist the manipulation to which they themselves have surrendered.

I hope that they still have some leverage when they wake up and realize that their leaders and role models have played them for fools.

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The difference between harmless and harmful partisanship

The following is an excerpt from a column written by a partisan and ideologically rigid political commentator. I have modified it to illustrate the primary failing of intellectual rigidity and “petty” partisanship, regardless of party or “wing.”

“One of liberalism’s/conservatism’s many problems is that once an idea or program is proved wrong and unworkable, liberals/conservatives rarely acknowledge their mistake and examine the root cause of their error so they don’t repeat it.”

Here’s a tip. Whenever anyone criticizes an “ism” as if it were a person or identifiable group of people, do not panic, just smile and nod and slowly back away.

There are both reasonable ways and good reasons to debate the pros and cons of opposing “isms” as well as opposing groups, such as political parties. However, implying that the differences between ideological and partisan perspectives are psychological, a matter of character or personality traits, such as stubbornness, stupidity, hypocrisy, etc…, rather than philosophical is a particularly risky business that is far more likely to derail public debate than to facilitate it.

Interestingly, there is a fascinating literature on the connections between psychology and politics with some solid correlations between one’s political worldview and neuropsychological makeup. Sadly, whenever any of this scholarship gets into the mainstream media, partisans on the side made to look crazier by such research roundly denounce and discredit it, feeding a growing tendency of Americans to misunderstand and mistrust scientific research.

I’m not even saying that everyone should stop insulting each other. I’m just saying that when you want to insult someone, then insult someONE. Name your targets as specifically as you can and support your accusations with clear, credible evidence because generalizing inappropriately is the hallmark of anti-intellectualism at best and rank stupidity at worst.

You might be thinking; come on, what’s the harm? These kind of demagogic arguments are just efforts to preach to the choir or rally the base. They are not serious attempts to persuade. While this is certainly true, most Americans lack easy access to “serious attempts to persuade” due to the state of mass media in America today. Young people might be learning about logic and reasonableness and the scientific method in school, but they are rarely treated to good examples of it outside of the classroom. While trickle-down economics doesn’t work, it appears likely that trickle-down anti-intellectualism does.

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Context is Key

In his latest column, conservative commentator Michael Gerson has provided a thoughtful and I hope useful example of how to effectively evaluate politically significant claims. In his discussion of claims of fraud in the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Gerson reminds us that failing to put claims into proper context, or ignoring relevant contexts when evaluating claims, can be very costly. He writes. “When scandals fit preexisting ideological narratives, they assume a life of their own. This particular narrative – the story of useless, wasted aid – is durable. It is also misleading and might be deadly.”

This seemingly simple caution is significant enough to repeat, and repeat, and repeat, because it is very hard to employ consistently and carefully. Almost every popular political slogan or talking point in American politics today is conceived with two things in mind: 1) people rarely scrutinize political claims carefully enough to discern whether they are properly contextualized; and 2) Since political actors’ claims of having been misunderstood or taken out of context have become ubiquitous, slogans or talking points “exposed” as deceptive, will still retain credibility with like-minded folks who are easily lead to discount any criticisms of the claims of political allies.

This allows alarming numbers of Americans to believe crazy things long after they have been demonstrably falsified. Think WMDs, death panels, and 9/11 conspiracy theories. Average Americans being unable or unwilling to appreciate the role of context is bad, but when powerful public officials follow suit, the consequences can be more problematic. Particularly scary is the recent example provided by the Federal District Court Judge in Florida who found the ENTIRE health insurance reform law unconstitutional. His opinion made no effort to camouflage his dismissal of nearly two centuries case law. Instead, this trial court judge decided that he was in a position to authoritatively interpret the Constitution’s “original principles” as sufficiently clear on the relevant points.

While many commentators have fairly characterized this as an act of hubris and of blatant partisanship, few have been willing to point out the much more dangerous implication of this judge’s opinion; that it was brazenly ill conceived and intellectually vacuous. Although the condemnation of this judge’s ruling, as well as that the other federal judge ‘s ruling against the individual mandate portion of the law, has been roundly condemned by legal and constitutional experts right, left, and center, every Republican leader in America (most of whom are lawyers) are willing to pretend that the judge’s ruling is sound and proper.

There’s no legitimate way to enforce intellectual standards in democratic political discourse, but if we allow judicial decision making to abandon sound intellectual and jurisprudential standards, we are really looking for trouble. If enough people, for whatever reason, are unable or unwilling to hold jurists to clear standards of reasoning, then our great experiment in democracy will begin to decay.

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Safety improvements would increase football’s competitiveness

NOTE: Words in this post that are red with a double underline are ADS placed by WordPress without the consent or endorsement of the author.

Alex Grant’s column in the January 27th edition of the Longmeadow News about the safety of high school football was a wake-up call for me, and it should generate a thoughtful dialogue among community leaders.

The studies revealing the dangers of head injuries in football are not new, but they are becoming increasingly precise in ways that demand ongoing attention and re-examination, especially from those of us who support and participate in youth football, as my son and I do. For me, the key piece of information provided by Mr. Grant was the finding that medically significant head trauma occurs in collisions that are not severe enough to cause a concussion.

My decision to let my son play football was not easy, but at the end of the day I was satisfied that concussions were the danger to be avoided and contented myself with the notion that I would make my son sit out the remainder of a football season if he got a concussion. If the research on more subtle, even indiscernible, head injuries resulting from routine play in football is sufficiently established, then I will have to strongly reconsider the pros and cons of youth football for my kids.

Many football fans and former players, now parents, see this type of research as an assault on the purity of a game that has considerable -positive- impact on the physical and character development of its players. I share their desire to protect the game and thereby its positive impacts on players. However, I’m not sure that defending the style of play dominant today qualifies as defending the “purity” of the game.

I think there is an argument to be made that these troubling injuries represent, not hard, tough play of a hard, tough game, but rather lazy, unskilled, and misguided play of a game that should require greater intelligence, athleticism and agility from all 11 players. In other words, the increased safety risks of contemporary football represent the real assault on the purity of the game.

As competitive football has become increasingly so, protective gear has evolved in ways that improve safety on the one hand, but that facilitate changes in strategy and tactics as well. The replacement of intelligence, athleticism, agility, and proper form and technique with brute force and power has clearly been an unintended by-product of advances in safety equipment, which are now used to protect from and to project punishment. The increased value of brute force and strength has also clearly allowed less athletic, even less healthy, young men to become valuable players. It has created an incentive to intentionally engage in body development that we know has negative impacts on short and long-term health.

Even linemen on both sides of the ball 50 years ago had to be much more athletic, quick on their feet, and thoughtful. They could rarely rely on size or brute force to overwhelm opponents, nor could they use their entire body as a weapon on every play. The bone crushing “hits” on receivers and backs by defensive players at all levels of football today are just that, “hits.” They are not tackles. They are not the product of expert tackling, but rather they are the result of expert “hitting” which pleases the crowd and adds another psychological layer to football strategy, but it does not equal the level of intelligence, agility, and athleticism required of good tackling. It also results in higher scoring games due to less effective tackling, which ironically is a win-win for pro football where the bottom line is about entertainment. You get highlight reel hits and highlight reel scoring, neither of which should be important in amateur athletics.

The biggest complaint about youth football players is their lack of sound tackling skills. But just as youth basketball players mimic the fundamentally unsound maneuvers of NBA players, such as traveling and carrying, young football players see NFL “hits” as the way it’s supposed to be done. The most serious injuries in football come most frequently from bad tackling technique; from “hits,” not from sound tackles. The NFL doesn’t really play the game designed by Walter Camp at Yale University in the 1870’s, and because the “pro game” is about entertainment, not physical fitness or character development, I believe that youth, high school, and even college football need to set themselves apart from the game’s professional incarnation in much the same way as youth, high school, and college wrestling have always done. Today, neither pro football nor pro wrestling have anything to do with fitness or character development, which makes both incompatible with the goals of youth, high school, and college athletics.

I believe that football can be played safely, not by demanding less of an important quality like toughness, but rather by requiring more of qualities like, tactical intelligence, teamwork, athleticism, quickness, and agility. Restoration of amateur football’s purity may require smaller shoulder pads, helmets without face masks that can be used as weapons, and rules reforms that reduce the functionality of uncontrolled power. It may prove less exciting for the fans in the stands, but it would also prove much more competitive, and frankly more difficult, for the players on the field, which I think everyone would admit is far more important for the development of student-athletes.

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Who’s the target… audience?

The rhetorical battle in the wake of the Tucson shooting about political rhetoric is being fought by folks who are committed to one party or the other in the electoral political arena. One of the important differences between the present “debate” and the status quo is the expectation of the debaters that their persuadable audience has suddenly expanded.

While political operators, pundits, and politicians are no doubt correct that they have (however briefly) the attention of a wider swath of potential voters, they are also probably not connecting –directly at least- with them as much as they imagine. The folks I routinely listen to, talk to, and argue with are the least likely to have their political perspective altered by non-substantive partisan spinning, either because they are too smart to be persuaded by the rhetoric of outrage and umbrage, or because they are perpetually outraged and offended by one side or the other. They are the ones who are committed to a political perspective. I assume that most of these folks know that both sides’ spinners of outrage and umbrage are full of shit, but understand this is an ugly but necessary political means to greater, nobler public policy ends.

The folks who are dangerous, and mostly just dangerous to themselves, are the few who really believe the BS of the “politics of personal destruction.” They are the ones who take politics waaaay too personally and who feel that they are under attack when their side’s leaders are criticized. They are the unwitting pawns of interested elites, and they don’t persuade anyone of anything. Their role is to rally the base; to preach to the choir. Their reward is the confidence that they are better than “the fools and suckers” on the other side.

So we have two kinds of politically attentive citizens (bear with this obvious oversimplification): Those who have self conscious philosophical and/or policy preferences, and those who may or may not have these things but who also have become deeply immersed in the “us versus them” narrative of politics and whose politics are as much about their identity as their beliefs. Politically inattentive citizens (no doubt the majority of citizens) have fairly strong biases against politics in general, seeing it as an activity from which they and their families should be shielded. Most are not self consciously partisan, even the ones who vote, but (though largely unbeknownst to them) they are ideologically predisposed to the values and social cues of either the right or the left. THESE ARE THE PRIMARY TARGETS OF HEATED RHEORIC. These are the folks who are unwittingly susceptible to the political rhetoric of “outrage and umbrage,” which like them is consciously anti-politics.

Left and right today spend a crazy amount of their rhetorical energies feigning outrage at their opponents “blatantly political” actions, statements, and motives, while pretending that there is a non-political, non-partisan, objectively correct philosophical and policy approach to governing- theirs. The primary goal of partisan rhetoric today is to convince the “politics hating” majority of Americans that one side shares their disgust with politics much more than the other side.

There’s no point in wasting much energy on substantive philosophical and/or policy arguments because the voters you need to win are either disinterested in substantive policy debates, or lacking access to the resources necessary to follow such debates intelligently. The voters who can understand and would appreciate substantive arguments are either too few to matter or are knowledgeable enough to be committed prior to any popular campaigning.
Survey research has long told us that the key, seemingly persuadable voters, are also the least well informed voters and least knowledgeable on matters of government and politics, which makes perfect sense since few people bother to learn about something that doesn’t interest them, never mind something they actively distain. That’s why all politicians promise to “change business as usual” and to “end the petty bickering and partisanship.” These slogans are utterly vacuous and yet even knowledgeable citizens get little else to ponder and evaluate in American politics.

Partisans don’t have to do convince their own side’s committed partisans (the extremists or the reasonable ones). These folks can be largely taken for granted and, even better, can be enlisted in rallying the base and in attracting moderate voters, neither of which requires substantive policy or philosophical knowledge or arguments. Any voter who refuses to vote for a candidate or party unwilling to provide intelligible substance has nowhere where else to go. They will either, support their natural political allies dumb rhetoric and all or make themselves irrelevant by staying home or lodging a protest vote for a non-viable candidate or party.

Where does leave the reasonable partisans in American government and politics; the people with the highest levels of knowledge and understanding of the ideas, policies, and processes of American government and politics? It leaves them little choice but to accept deceptive and anti-intellectual political marketing strategies and to hope that the side closest to their values and philosophy can be prodded to make marginal policy gains in the right direction once elected. The other options are to drop out entirely, or to join the ideological extremists in hopes of obtaining the next best thing to real progress; the conviction that no matter what, you are on the side of the wise and the good.

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Incentives and Incivility

We don’t need greater civility in our political discourse as much as we need more rational and reasonable scrutiny and evaluation of the “good, bad and ugly” by citizens, journalists, and other individuals and institutions that impact public opinion. Hyperbolic, unreasonable, and inaccurate rhetoric has become so pervasive that Americans have become desensitized to it. Unfortunately, such desensitization is often accompanied by a diminished willingness (and possibly capacity) to invest time and energy in serious, intellectually credible deliberation.

Where does one go to read, hear, or participate in an intellectually reasonable debate about political power and/or public policy in America? The internet? LOL… How can American voters filter and effectively analyze the reasonableness of political or policy arguments by “interested” parties, that is, anyone with political and/or material interests in the nature and outcome of political debates? The search for qualified disinterested actors or institutions with sufficient incentive for dispassionate analysis is both unnecessary and practically impossible for most Americans. We don’t need to agree on much in our democratic form of government, but we do need to argue and debate each other from shared premises. Without a shared premise humans cannot even communicate with each other, never mind reason with each other.

In American courtrooms, these shared premises are constructed and enforced by rules of evidence and expert judges. Imposing such rules on democratic politics, however, would obviously be very un-democratic, a “cure worse than the disease” you might say. In politics, such rules of evidence and debate MUST be self imposed. The Framers assumed that such self imposition would be incentivized by our competitive political processes, just as rational consumers in a market economy are supposed to incentivize high quality and low prices by competing producers of goods and services.

If the recent history has taught us anything, it is that our assumptions about both consumer and citizen rationality are deeply flawed and out of step with observable reality in the 21st Century. Excessive faith in “invisible hands” in politics and the marketplace have clearly begun to do more harm than good. In other words, the modern practice of business and politics has overwhelmed our 18th Century theories. The real issue now is; how can we preserve the values and workable elements of our creedal political and economic principles (representative democracy and capitalism) without turning a blind eye to the myriad changes in human society that render slavish devotion to political and economic scripture anachronistic as best.

In the wake of the tragedy in Tucson, everyone is suggesting that we need more civilized civil discourse, which is fair enough but also potentially distracting from this deeper issue. Hyperbole and incivility lose persuasive power as the intellectual sophistication and knowledge level of the target audience increases. This is why Glen Beck is about as likely to speak at an American Political Science Association convention as Keith Olbermann is to give a speech at the Heritage Foundation. All the talk today is centered on the responsible exercise of our speech and gun rights. I think we need to make room for serious discussion and consideration about responsible exercise of our right to care or not care about and to participate in or avoid politics. Smart people who care about their cause don’t generally use unreasonable rhetoric when trying to persuade each other, just as smart people don’t generally misuse fire arms. If the political and material (i.e. $$$) incentives of political actors are advanced by adherence to high standards of reasonableness; standards like clarity, accuracy, logic, breadth, depth, and so forth, the abuse of both speech and guns would probably diminish, and we would probably be more able to preserve what is good about our individualistic political and economic principles.

While this sounds good as I think it and type it, I can’t help being a bit pessimistic. I’m pretty sure almost everybody already understands these points as well as I do, but also like me, I suspect they have no clear idea of how political and material incentives could be synchronized with high intellectual standards of reasonableness and accuracy. I have enough trouble trying to affect this synchronization in college classrooms to be pessimistic about inculcating incentives for such standards in the wider culture.

I do know that a serious national discussion and debate about the concept of “individual rationality” as a clear and workable premise for our economic and political transactions is in order and that such an inquiry would not provide either side of America’s right-left divide disproportionate political advantage. Maybe efforts to develop a sufficiently shared understanding of the theory and application of “individual rationality” in America would be a good place to start at this moment when Americans’ very fleeting attention is focused on politics.

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It’s about the meaning, not the metaphors.

The media chatter about the impact of political rhetoric on the behavior of whackos since the shooting in Tucson has been incredibly annoying. I find myself wanting to scream at the TV- “It’s not the metaphors!!!” The terminology of war has always been a central part of American political rhetoric and the idea that a congressman is in serious danger if opponents use a target symbol against them is a red herring at best. The rhetoric that inspires whackos to kill is that of apocalypse and existential threat. If some left leaning whacko is told that Republicans are “literally” killing the planet, the he or she may become an eco-terrorist. If a right leaning, or just anti-government, whacko is told that the Democratic President and his party are an enemy of America and the constitution, for which our military “heroes” kill and die, then he or she may decide to become an “American hero.”

While violent extremists do indeed come in all shapes and sizes, left and right, at this point in American history the rhetoric of apocalypse and existential threat is most visible on the right, but contrary to popular opinion, it’s not the conservative right that I worry about, it’s the libertarian right. Extreme individualists, right and left, generate the fear of existential threat without the moderating influence of faith in transcendence. What could be a more desperate state of mind than one in which your existence is threatened and you have no hope of higher meaning or existence?

I’m not minimizing the danger of moral zealotry and the “crusader” mindset, as much as I’m highlighting a different kind of zealotry and extremism that may become more prominent in our secular age. Hopelessness can be just as dangerous as reified principles, and when one can hope to achieve some kind of nobility and heroism amidst desperate hopelessness, such a course of action probably becomes more likely.

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The Great Constitutional Debate

In his latest Column Conservative Columnist Charles Krauthammer stakes out the argument for constitutional “originalism,” which calls on jurists, and lawmakers, to anchor their interpretation of the Constitution in the literal text and the meanings of each word, phrase, and clause exactly the way the Framers would have in 1787. Obviously, this approach can be abused by right wing extremists, just as the more dominant liberal approach of accounting for changed contexts can fit Krauthammer’s characterization of it as allowing “high courts [to act as] channelers of the spirit of the age, free to create new constitutional principles accordingly.”

While Krauthammer is a strong advocate of conservative “originalism,” He’s savvy enough to avoid using certain prominent examples of his favored approach, such as Anton Scalia’s claim that women do not have any constitutional protections from discrimination, or the “originalist” claim that Americans do not have any right to privacy guaranteed by the Constitution.

Ultimately, despite the examples of conservative extremism above, Krauthammer welcomes a national debate about the proper meaning of the Constitution, as he should. Liberals also welcome this debate, and do so equally confident that the American people will prefer what they consider a more pragmatic contextual approach. Personally, as a liberal I’m rooting for context over anachronism, but as a political scientist, I’m curious about why respected intellectuals on both sides are so confident.

The answer to this question is likely to involve a well known theory in political science that I have found increasingly relevant in recent times. Americans in general have paradoxical approaches to the dispute underlying this Constitutional debate; they tend to like less government in theory and more government in practice. More simply, they want lower taxes AND more government services. This long recognized preference for operational liberalism and symbolic conservatism may help explain the role reversal being highlighted recently in which conservatives have been relying on theoretical rhetoric, while liberals have been aggressively touting empirical, results-based evidence.

It seems to me that conservatives are betting on the power of traditional American symbols and what Lincoln called America’s “civic religion” to overwhelm the more pragmatic, but possibly less inspirational, liberal pragmatism. Liberals, on the other hand, seem to be confident that the majority of Americans will ultimately choose an activist government out of rational self interest. Many have noted that the recently passed health insurance reform law is easy to demonize presently, but as soon as the benefits start kicking in Americans will grow to see it the same way they do Social Security and Medicare.

In the meantime, we can expect to be hearing a lot about the intentions of the Framers and frequent appeals to “individual freedom” and “liberty” from the right and from the left a parade of data about shocking inequalities in income, education, healthcare, and more in the wealthiest nation in the world. The real question is: how can we orchestrate a debate that openly acknowledges and accounts for this operational-symbolic dimension, rather than the standard practice both sides intentionally obscuring it? As often as possible, I recommend highlighting this operational-symbolic paradox and calling out those who talk past each other in this “great constitutional debate.” Those trapped in either the dogmatism of symbolism or the tyranny of data by demagogues and spinners, left and right, need to have the benefit of understanding this paradox in order to avoid being manipulated.

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Profound Role Reversal or Just Bad Remake?

I was quite pleased to find that just one day after I wrote my Role Reversal blog entry, one of my favorite political analysts, E.J. Dionne, made largely the same argument in his Washington Post column. It’s a great confidence booster to find yourself on the same wave length as such a talented writer and thinker as Dionne; the self satisfaction mitigated only by the more elequent prose and more erudite references that adorn his expression of our shared view.

The question of this follow up essay is: What are the larger implications of the recent conversion of hard-nosed conservative realists into obsequious devote’s of conservative political philosophers and abstract economic theory? What should we make of the site of liberal academics assuming the role of pragmatists and realists in our contempory partisan debate? Is the spectacle of Republican congressional leaders relying on pie-in-the-sky abstractions that lack a shred of empirical evidence a sign of that the apocalypse is near?

For the Democratic political consultants, this role reversal creates an opportunity to exploit Republican populism and culture war strategies. Now it may be the Republicans who have their heads in the driver’s manual while a Mack Truck is speeding toward a spectacular collision with that car President Obama frequently talks about pulling out of a ditch. With the rise of conservative scholars at major American universities and well funded think tanks, quoting Hayek and Jefferson the way devout Christians quote the gospels, we can expect liberal spinners to step up their efforts to brand Republicans as out-of-touch elitists and condemn their right wing version of “social engineering.” Like pretty much every major rhetorical weapon in American political history, the side first burned studies, refines, and deploys these weapons against their creators. Indeed, the proliferation of conservative academic and research institutions in the last 40 years was a self conscious effort to neutralize liberals’ near monopoly on intellectual authority in America in the mid 20th Century.

The downside of rhetorical imitation in partisan politics is that sequels are rarely as good as the original -in movies or politics- and often have to rely on gratuitous sensationalism in order to achieve box office or ballot box returns on investment. An example of this phenomenon was experienced by the Newt Gingrich Republican Congress that caused the government shutdown of 1995. The Speaker (and former college professor) decided that Republicans could tar Bill Clinton with the negative impact of a government shutdown just as Democrats had done to Ronald Reagan. To his chagrin, Speaker Gingrich’s “theory” didn’t translate well from black board to playing field, though I understand he’s still in denial about that.

Like Speaker Gingrich, Democrats may find that in hoisting Republicans on their own petards, so to speak, they have done as much harm as good for their cause. By employing this anti-intellectual, culture class warfare strategy that seems to have worked for conservatives they may well be over-estimating the compatibility of this approach with both present political reality and liberal goals, a misjudgment likely to produce unintended and unhelpful consequences. Conservative ascendance in the academy has certainly been successful at weakening the credibility of liberal intellectuals, but at the same time, it may well have contributed greatly to the diminished credibility for ALL intellectuals, academics, and even scientists. An electorate stubbornly opposed to intellectual sophistication is very unlikely to create durable advantages for the left or the right in American politics.

What if liberal intellectuals succeed in destroying the credibility of literal and inflexible moral and legal authority, and conservatives succeed in destroying the credibility of contextual nuance, critical thinking and the scientific method? What would the views of average Americans look like then? How could our great experiment in liberal democracy survive such a dilution of our creedal paradox that is our ability to balance the consent of the governed with wise administration of government and society? If effective balance of what some have called the “countervailing virtues” of our constitutional design is truly the source of our system’s “genius” then we might want to think about ways to stem the present escalation in America’s partisan and ideological arms race. Unlike the nuclear arms race, “mutually assured destruction” seems to have lost its deterrent effect in 21st Century American politics.

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Role Reversal

There has always been a conflict, in the popular imagination at least, between idealistic academics and hardnosed men of action. Professors get caught up in the beauty of models and theories, sometimes losing sight of real world applications, while the “real worlders” who live in the world of results and consequences understand how the job gets done, but often without a handle on the long run implications of their methods. When dogmatic liberals defend abstract principles like freedom of speech or criminal due process without regard to social costs, conservatives emphasize the practical damage of ignoring real world consequences.

Like most such notions, this one has, or at least had, a kernel of truth. Today, however, It is the conservatives who are most vigorous in wielding high principles as a political weapons without regard to real world consequences. [It’s probably important to note here that while doctrinaire liberalism is out of fashion, it is not extinct.] The men of action, titans of the business world, and their conservative political (and judicial) counterparts, have become the pie-in-the-sky idealists. It is the CEOs and Republican politicians and judges who now refuse to see the reality of unbridled faith in theory, in their preferred “isms.” While they retain skepticism about natural theories such as Darwinism in nature, many modern day conservatives haven’t a shadow of a doubt about the universal truth of the “theory” of Darwinian capitalism.

Having chastened the overreach of liberal visions of social engineering, many real world conservatives have allowed themselves to be captured by right wing academics and ideologues, whose unwillingness to measure the real world results of unregulated capitalism and literal constitutionalism defy commonsense no less than that of their liberal forbearers and counterparts.

The more I recognize the similarities between the capture of American conservatives by conservative “intellectuals” and the relationship between American liberals and the academy during the mid to late 20th century, the more I sympathize with William F. Buckley’s famous claim that he’d “rather be governed by the first 100 names in the Boston phonebook than by Harvard’s entire faculty.” Today, Harvard professors look like dyed in the wool realists compared to the Republicans in Congress.

I really like being the more realistic participant in political debates. It feels to me like a win-win. I get to enjoy some insulation from many of the economy’s hardships as a tenured professor, while nevertheless producing analysis that includes insights from the big and the little picture, theoretically grounded and consistent with experience. Unfortunately, I don’t expect this role reversal to last forever (I’m a realist). At some point the shock troops and innocent converts swept up in the present wave of ideological conservatism will figure out that they will not really be the beneficiaries of the present right wing version of liberation any more than they and those like them were the focus of the left wing version of liberation in the 60s and 70s.

I guess I’ll just have to make the most of it while it lasts.

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