Category Archives: Random Blogging

Send Money!! But Where??

A reader recently emailed me with a request to address what he called “strategic” giving–advice about where our political donations will have the greatest impact, and will be most likely to help retain Democratic congressional majorities.

He noted that–in the aftermath of yet another extreme gerrymander in Indiana, this state would seem to be a lost cause.  Like most of us who have ever rashly sent a few dollars to a candidate, he receives email requests almost daily for campaign donations from candidates and organizations across the country.

My track record as a political strategist is pathetic (not to mention my track record as a candidate…), so I forwarded his request to friends who are far more politically savvy. The email conversation that ensued left me with responses that were less than helpful, to put it mildly.

Here is the first of those responses. (I am not identifying the authors.)

Well, I would not say it was a waste to give to Dem congressional candidates like Christina Hale.  The next cycle or two in Indiana in the 5th will be a challenge, but we are going to win it before the next decade (provided we have a functioning democracy, which is far from a forgone conclusion.).  As to where to give, it is too early to give any really sound advice until redistricting is completed. But there will be 10-20 swing districts where the majority will hinge and folks who want their money to count should pay attention to that.  And if there is a way to give but avoid the insane email, that would be ideal.

The second response was shorter–and darker.

I would just add that, to the extent there are effective GOTV operations in/around those 10-20 competitive districts, money might be well spent on those efforts as well.

Nobody in IN is going to see a dime of my money, as I think Indiana is lost for my lifetime.

And number three:

I wish I had something of value to add. As I read about reapportionment in many states I find this really disheartening. My question is: how do the Indiana legislative maps look? Will there be enough swing legislative districts that the Republicans can even be denied a supermajority? I simply don’t have any idea about where or whether that is even possible.

My own two cents (see above for an evaluation of my own “savvy”) is that response #2 is too bleak when it comes to Indiana: a colleague who teaches political science offered some analysis a while back that is more in line with opinion #1–the emptying out of Indiana’s rural regions has made it difficult to carve out districts that will continue to be safe for the GOP for more than the next election cycle (and perhaps not even then). Much will depend upon turnout–as I keep reminding folks, gerrymandering is based on turnout data from previous elections, and if Indiana’s Democrats (who are much more numerous than conventional wisdom recognizes) could field a really effective GOTV effort, it would definitely make a difference.

Of course, turning out the vote requires good candidates and good messaging…two elements we don’t yet have the ability to evaluate. (One of the most pernicious effects of gerrymandering is the difficulty in recruiting good candidates–after all, who wants to run on the “sure loser” ticket?)

We also don’t yet know the answer to the question posed in response #3.

Here in Indiana, volunteering for the campaign or for getting out the vote, if that’s possible, would make a big difference in places where the Democrats have a chance.

When the fundraising appeals come from elsewhere, it’s harder to separate out the claims of viability from reality. My own approach is to find a couple of campaigns that seem especially important, research them as best I can–what is the breakdown of Republicans and Democrats in the district? What about the polling? What do the pundits (who are frequently wrong) have to say about the race? Is the candidate’s website well-done? What about the messaging? The fundraising thus far? What about the campaign’s GOTV effort?

My conclusions tell me where to send my $25 or $50 or $100 checks–amounts I understand are unlikely to make much of a difference.

I don’t think my approach is very “strategic,” but it’s the best I can do…

 

 

 

 

Of Whigs And Wackos

A few nights ago–as I previously reported–I was a guest lecturer in a friend’s class on political activism. I had been asked to address America’s current political polarization, and I shared many of the opinions I previously posted here: the asymmetric nature of that polarization, with the GOP moving far, far to the right and the Democratic party only recently listening to its more progressive members; the fact that the Democratic party is a much bigger tent than the GOP (which is currently a lock-step cult), making cohesion far more difficult for Democrats; the outsized role of a fragmented media; and of course, White Christian Nationalism, aided and abetted by Republican gerrymandering.
 
During the question and answer period, the undergraduates asked pretty sophisticated questions–this was clearly a group of politically-engaged and thoughtful young people. One of them asked me what I thought would happen to the Republican Party.

I responded honestly that I had no clue–that the GOP might go the way of the Whigs, or might return to something approaching a normal political party as the oldsters died off and the fever abated. Or??

However, the next morning, columnist Jennifer Rubin addressed that same question,  noting that Trump critics and disaffected Republicans have already begun to run for the exits.

Matthew Dowd, a former Republican adviser to George W. Bush, is running for Texas lieutenant governor as a Democrat. Evan McMullin, former CIA officer and Republican congressional aide, is running for a Utah Senate seat as an independent. This is a sound trend: If you can’t beat the MAGA cult, leave.
 
There is scant evidence that any appetite exists in the GOP for independent thinking or pro-democracy critics of the disgraced former president. When Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) is booted from House leadership and ostracized while anti-Semitic mouthpiece and crackpot Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) remains a member in good standing, it is obvious which way the wind is blowing.

The sane faction of the GOP could probably fit around a dining room table. The House minority leader apparently does not believe he cannot survive politically without showing unwavering loyalty to the former president who incited a violent insurrection. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans think it is acceptable to vote to send the country into default but not to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Trump and Trumpism remain firmly in control of the GOP–as Rubin reports, a recent Pew  survey found two-thirds of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents reaffirming their loyalty, including 44% who say they would like him to run for president in 2024. The poll’s results confirm Rubin’s conclusion that no one can oppose the cult leader and remain viable in the party.

Many well-meaning Republicans have tried in vain to shake the GOP from its Trumpian foundation. Finding no success, they now need to topple the MAGA party if they want to insulate the country from instability, authoritarian rule and possibly violence.

Reform from within is apparently impossible–a conclusion with which a number of former Republicans agree. Rubin encourages them to run as Democrats (providing evidence that the party is hardly the nefarious gang of “socialists” portrayed by the cultists) or Independents (hopefully splitting the GOP vote). 

In our two-party system, it is extremely difficult to “kill off” a major political party. But it has been done before.The Whigs were active in the middle of the 19th century;  although the Democratic Party was slightly larger, the Whigs were one of the country’s two major parties  between the late 1830s and the early 1850s. Four presidents were affiliated with the Whig Party during at least part of their respective terms, and Whig party leaders included names we all know–men like Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, William Seward, and John Quincy Adams. Ultimately, the Whigs divided over the issue of slavery, and were replaced by the Republican Party.

As the saying goes, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. Today’s GOP is now firmly committed to White Christian Supremacy, and Republicans who do not share that worldview are leaving, in a reversal of the desertion that destroyed the Whig Party. (Pro-slavery Whigs left to join the nativist, pro-slavery American Party.)

Rubin is right, and Republicans appalled by the party’s descent into racism and nihilism are recognizing the fact.

 I think we may be seeing the beginning of the end….The only question is, how much damage can a party in its death throes inflict on the rest of us?

 

The Suicidal Human Race

I used to think I understood at least some aspects of human behavior. In college, I learned about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and that made a lot of sense; as I aged (and boy, have I aged!), I came to understand the complexities created by our individual, still poorly-understood combinations of nature and nurture.

But reactions to the combination of a global pandemic and the existential threat of climate change have left me gobsmacked. What explains the evident preference of so many people for obviously suicidal behaviors? How do people manage to construct a “reality” contrary to science and logic, let alone personal safety?

The politicization of responses to Covid has been widely described, although that phenomenon is still not well explained. Denial of the severity of the threat, fear of lifesaving vaccines and ingestion of dangerous “cures” (for a disease that doesn’t exist??) are largely  Republican behaviors–and suicidal at both the individual and group levels. Research confirms that rural folks and members of the GOP are dying in far greater numbers than Democrats and city dwellers.

Equally suicidal is the maddening, continuing, blithe refusal to address climate change seriously, despite years of warnings. Denying the threat, and/or continuing to postpone any serious effort to combat it, should no longer be possible–at least, by sane humans–because the effects of a warming planet are already manifesting. And yet, headlines like this one from the Guardian, remind us that governments–ours and others around the globe–continue to prefer the bottom line of fossil fuel companies over the ability of the only planet we currently inhabit to sustain human life and civilization.

The fossil fuel industry benefits from subsidies of $11m every minute, according to analysis by the International Monetary Fund.

The IMF found the production and burning of coal, oil and gas was subsidised by $5.9tn in 2020, with not a single country pricing all its fuels sufficiently to reflect their full supply and environmental costs. Experts said the subsidies were “adding fuel to the fire” of the climate crisis, at a time when rapid reductions in carbon emissions were urgently needed.

If fossil fuel prices reflected their true cost, the IMF calculates we would cut global CO2 emissions by over a third.

The G20 agreed in 2009 to phase out “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies and in 2016, the G7 set a deadline of 2025, but little progress has been made. In July, a report showed that the G20 countries had subsidised fossil fuels by trillions of dollars since 2015, the year the Paris climate deal was reached.

There’s a fair amount of data available on individual suicides: my very superficial research suggests that people who try to kill themselves may suffer from depression, substance abuse or other mental disorders. (More understandably, suicides are more prevalent in people who suffer from chronic pain.) None of these reasons–with the possible exception of mental disorder–explains either the rejection of science and logic leading to refusal to be vaccinated, or the social phenomenon of lawmakers preferring the bottom line of fossil fuel companies to the survival of civilization as we know it.

I’m at a loss.

A Sanity Backlash?

In a recent column for the Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin suggests that Texas Republicans may be doing something Democrats have been unable to do: they may be turning the Lone Star State blue.

Rubin says the GOP has alienated so many voters outside its hardcore base, it has  put the state in play in 2022, when the state will elect a governor in addition to the usual congressional  and local contests.

A new Quinnipiac poll suggests Republicans’ radicalism has put them at odds with a majority of Texas voters. In the wake of the Texas law offering bounties to “turn in” those seeking an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, with no exceptions for rape or incest, the poll reports that 77 percent of state residents say abortion should be legal in cases of rape or incest, including 66 percent of Republicans. Some 72 percent of Texans do not want the law enforced, and 60 percent want to keep Roe v. Wade in place.

Even on a quintessentially Texan issue such as guns, voters are not in sync with MAGA politicians. The pollsters found: “Roughly two-thirds (67 percent) of voters, including 58 percent of gun owners, say allowing anyone 21 years of age or older to carry handguns without a license or training makes Texas less safe, while 26 percent say it makes Texas safer. Half of voters (50 percent) say it’s too easy to carry a handgun in Texas, while 44 percent say it’s about right, and 4 percent say it’s too difficult.”

When it comes to the GOP’s incomprehensible posturing on the pandemic, the results are equally negative for Abbott and his hard-core supporters in the state legislature: polling shows that Texas voters are much closer to the positions taken by President Biden than to Abbott. Texans opine  47 – 38 percent that Abbott is hurting rather than helping efforts to slow the spread of COVID–and majorities support vaccine mandates.

Those numbers evidently persuaded Matthew Dowd, who was a former senior adviser to President George W. Bush, to run for lieutenant governor–as a Democrat.

Dowd is betting that Texans want something other than pandering to the MAGA base. “The Texas Republican politicians are completely out of step with Texas values like integrity and community and no longer govern with common sense, common decency or for the common good,” he told me on Saturday. “They put their ‘me’ over our ‘we.’ ”

If Rubin is right–if Democrats can win Texas despite the frantic gerrymandering and the  various efforts to make it harder for urban and suburban voters to cast a ballot, we may finally be seeing the results of a political strategy that has always seemed short-sighted to me: relying almost entirely on turning out the GOP base.

In order to “motivate” that increasingly rabid base, the GOP has increased its appeals to racism, conspiracy theories and general fear-mongering. Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans who claim the Republican label continues to shrink. Earlier this year, Gallup reported that–even when they included independents who “lean toward the GOP,” they could come up with only 40%, compared with 49% of Democrats and independents leaning  Democratic.

It’s worth noting, too, that not all of those Republicans and Republican “leaners” are part of the base. I personally know a number of people who still claim the label, but report being repelled by the current  iteration of a party that is anything but the adult, conservative political party they originally joined.

The problem with relying on a shrinking base is similar to the problem faced by drug addicts: you need bigger “hits” to produce the same high. But the crazier and meaner the party gets, the greater  the number of voters it turns off.

I’m trying not to get my hopes up, but there does seem to be evidence that we’ve rounded a corner–that the GOP’s manifest preference for acting out over governing has finally gone too far for the majority of citizens who will find their way to the polls in upcoming elections.

Whatever their policy differences, Democrats, Independents and the few remaining sane Republicans can all come together under that well-worn slogan: It’s time for a change.

I Want To Believe…

Stephen Pinker is one of those academics who has learned to communicate with a much broader public than is served by obscure academic journals. A recent, long article in The Guardian profiled him and the string of books he has authored over the past 25 years.

Pinker has written popular books on language, the mind and human behavior–books that reflected his scholarship– but he is best known for what the Guardian called his “counterintuitive take on the state of the world.” In other words, he is focused on the good news rather than the bad–a posture I find incredibly appealing. (Okay, I’m desperate for good news…)

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, published in 2011, Pinker examined mountains of data that showed a steady decline of violence across human history. He attributed that  decline to the emergence of markets and states. (It reminded me of Benjamin Barber’s observation that wars between countries that both had McDonalds were very rare…)

Then, in 2018, at the height of Donald Trump’s presidency and amid the accelerating climate crisis, Pinker published a follow-up, Enlightenment Now, which expanded his argument. It wasn’t just that life had become less violent; thanks to the application of science and reason since the 18th century, the human condition had dramatically improved in health, wealth and liberty, too.

According to the Guardian article,  the turning point in Pinker’s career arrived in 2007, when he was prompted to answer a simple question: “What are you optimistic about?”

The prompt was part of an annual symposium for the website Edge, run by Pinker’s literary agent, Brockman. Pinker’s 678-word answer was that violence had declined across human history, an argument he expanded over the next four years into the 696-page book Better Angels. “A large swathe of our intellectual culture is loth to admit that there could be anything good about civilization, modernity, and western society,” Pinker wrote in the book.

The article describes Pinker as standing “athwart the stupidification of public discourse–as  a defender of reason and objectivity.” That self-image led to the writing and publication of  Enlightenment Now, which I read a couple of years ago, and which Pinker himself has described as his “theory of everything, or almost everything, or at least a lot”. I strongly agree with the values that book endorsed–values that emerged from the Enlightenment and that are currently under attack by people on both the Right and fringe Left.

In the book, he argues that, along with liberalism, the Enlightenment gave rise to three main values – reason, science and humanism – that led to the massive improvements he charts in the human condition. These improvements were not only material but moral, as people began to expand their circle of moral concern to those beyond their own family, tribe, nation or species. It was his wife, he said, who convinced him that these values were “worth singling out and defending”.

Pinker offers a robust defense of liberal democracy, and the “mixture of civic norms, guaranteed rights, market freedom, social spending and judicious regulation, held together by a state strong enough to keep people from each other’s throats.”

I don’t agree with all of Pinker’s positions (nor, admittedly, am I familiar with all of them). The critics who point out that progress rarely comes from those who are cheerleaders for the path we are on have a point. His friendship with the detestable Alan Dershowitz also suggests some blind spots.

But Pinker isn’t blindly optimistic.  He concedes that we are living in a precarious moment–a time when advances in human wellbeing are under threat. He assigns primary importance to the political battle being waged against “the Trumpist, authoritarian, conspiratorial right.”  But he also worries that too many factions on the left see the world as a zero-sum battle for supremacy among different racial, ethnic and gender groups.

The (very lengthy) article ended with a quote from Pinker that was emblematic of our areas of agreement:  “Who’s going to actually step in and defend the idea that incremental improvements fed by knowledge, fed by expanding equality, fed by liberal democracy, are a good thing? Where are the demonstrations, where are the people pumping their fists for liberal democracy? Who’s going to actually say something good about it?”

Who is going to march for moderation, civility and common sense?

Who is going to the ramparts to defend science and reason and liberal democracy? Who is going to remind us that, over time, those products of Enlightenment philosophy have vastly improved the human condition? Who is going to protect us against the barbarians who are so close to the gate?

I so want to believe that sane Americans are going to rise up and shut that gate…