I was right there with you, watching that disaster unfold on the Rachel Maddow show last night. Not to brag, but I had a sneaking suspicion it wasn’t going to live up to the hype even before the show started:

In general, if something is truly-earth shattering news, they will tell you about it right away, not tease it out with a countdown clock. That’s why election night coverage isn’t: “You’ll be shocked when you see who won the Presidency! Details at 11.”

David Cay Johnston, the journalist who says he received the tax forms in the mail, allowed that it was possible that Trump himself might have leaked them. However, the fact that Trump has tweeted angrily about it afterwards has led people to think that he probably didn’t leak them after all:

People, in my opinion, are way too gullible.  The wording of Trump’s tweet is highly suspicious. For one thing, he phrases it in the form of a question–he doesn’t say it didn’t happen; he just asks if people believe it.

Now, I admit: I myself am a bit skeptical of Johnston’s story. He says he got a package in the mail that contained these tax returns.  Apparently, he doesn’t know who sent it to him or how they obtained it.  Which would raise questions as to its veracity, except that the White House almost immediately verified it last night!

Either Johnston is an idiot who didn’t think it was worth looking into why he got the President’s tax returns in the mail–very unlikely, since he’s a Pulitzer-winning journalist–or he’s lying to protect a source.

So, Trump (a) knew immediately that it really was his 2005 1040 form and (b) questioned Johnston’s story as to how he got it. This strongly suggests that Trump knows perfectly well how Johnston got it–which in turn suggests that some agent acting on orders from Trump gave it to him.

As Johnston himself admitted, the tax forms are actually favorable to Trump. They prove he did pay taxes for at least that one year, and show little evidence of nefarious dealings.

The end result is that Rachel Maddow got humiliated. (I’m sorry; I usually like Maddow’s work a lot, but she really screwed up here.) More importantly, though, Trump can now use this episode as an excuse to brush off all further questions about his taxes. Journalists won’t ask about it because they don’t want to screw up like Maddow did.

And what’s worse is that if anyone does somehow get hold of more of his taxes, people will be less inclined to pay attention to it. “It’s another publicity stunt,” they’ll say.

It’s true: I’ve always found the whole Trump-won’t-release-his-taxes story to be a bit overhyped. Yes, it was bad and a violation of historical precedent that he didn’t release them. But, on the list of “things that are bad and violate historical precedent” that Trump has done, it’s far from the worst.

And then there’s fact that there can’t be anything that damning in them.  They are taxes. They go to the Federal government. Logically, Trump is not going to put down anything illegal that he might be doing in his taxes.

As a thought experiment, let’s say the absolute worst conspiracy theories about Trump are true, and he’s actually colluding with the Russian government.  He’s not going to put that in his taxes.  There is no box that asks “Are you a spy for Russia?” on tax forms.

Furthermore, any circumstantial evidence that would suggest illegal activity by Trump, he would also not put in his taxes. If someone is already willing to commit crimes, he’s not going to hesitate to commit tax fraud to cover them up.

I’m not saying Trump has done any of this, but even if he has, there won’t be hard evidence of it in his taxes. At best, there might be circumstantial evidence, which Trump can dismiss with a simple “FAKE NEWS. Sad!” tweet.

The former governor of California wrote:

“Gerrymandering has completely broken our political system and I believe my best platform to help repair it is from the outside, by campaigning for independent redistricting commissions.”

He’s right on the first part–gerrymandering has completely broken our political system. It has created a bunch of sharply divided, non-competitive districts that are designed to favor one party or the other. (Usually the Republicans, obviously) This results in extreme polarization in the Congress.

Will Schwarzenegger’s plan to fix it actually work? Not bloody likely, in my opinion.

First of all, even if somehow someone manages to create an “independent redistricting commission”, the political pressure on it will be enormous.  And any decision they reach will be immediately attacked as unfair by whichever party stands to lose seats as a result of it.  (And again: that party will be the Republicans. I know this because they benefit from the current arrangement, and so any meaningful change would have to come at their expense.)

Moreover, and for all the same reasons, it is unlikely that anyone would be able to create such a commission with any meaningful power.

The Republicans have absolutely no incentive to support such a project, and every reason to oppose it. And they control all the levers of power, so they have the means to thwart the initiative.

So, to summarize: Schwarzenegger has a nice idea. But it’s not going to happen.

What should he do instead to try to fix the problem? Well for starters, he should look into my suggestion from this post:

[T]he liberal entertainment industry… could make other cities have the same brand power as New York and L.A. [and] help to attract other Democrats.

That strategy could work not only for Democrats, but also for anti-Trump Republicans such as Schwarzenegger. It is easier to change the demographics in the existing districts than it would be to change the shape of the districts themselves.

electoralcollege2016-svg
Via Wikipedia

There’s been a lot of talk about the fact that the Democrats lost white working- and middle-class voters in the 2016 Presidential election. Ever since, they have been trying to figure out how they can win them back without sacrificing some other part of their coalition.

As I explained here, this thinking is flawed.

Too many election post-mortems have treated the electorate as a static thing, when the reality is that they are very mobile and could easily completely change the map in just a couple years. And they won’t be reapportioning the electoral votes again until after the 2020 election–so there is one more chance to use them as they are currently distributed.

It’s important to remember that the Democrats won the popular vote in 2016.  So they should not be thinking in terms of how to get more votes.  The pressing problem is how to get the votes they already have into places where they will be most effective.

There is nonetheless a kernel of truth in the Republicans’ oft-repeated claim that liberal Democrats have fallen out of touch with the rest of country by congregating in urban areas on the coasts. They are concentrated in such super-blue areas that they forget about the rest of the country.

Democrats may respond that they don’t want to be in touch with people who would support a man like Donald Trump. Why should they engage with people who support a man so antithetical to their beliefs?

There are two problems with this logic. The first is that not all Trump voters enthusiastically support him. Some of them could probably be persuaded to see things differently.

The second and far more important point is that venturing into the Trump-supporting heartland need not mean surrounding oneself with Trump supporters.

This map, by Max Galka of Metrocosm, illustrates it well. It shows the total votes cast in each county and the winning candidate’s margin of victory.

election-map-3d-by-county
Credit: Max Galka, Metrocosm.com

Obviously, the first thing you notice is that L.A. county is almost literally off the chart. But the more significant thing is that Clinton won the heavily-populated counties all across the map. Even in the much-discussed Rust Belt of the Midwest, the region that delivered the victory to Trump, the highly populated areas were going for Clinton, often by big margins.

New York and Los Angeles aren’t the only heavily-Democratic cities in the country; they just happen to be where most of the press and broadcasting industries are located, so they get the attention. But even the red states usually have at least one urban area that voted for Clinton.

So, it’s probably true that Democrats should move out of the coastal enclaves. Not because they need to get in touch with the heartland, but because they need to send reinforcements to the inland liberal enclaves.

Of course, the Democratic party is not an army, and Tom Perez can’t just order thousands of Democrats to march off and take Madison, Columbus and Detroit. There’s no one obvious mechanism you can use to make them do this.  Most people don’t consider the number of electoral votes a state has when they are deciding where to settle.

There are ways this move can be encouraged, though.  After all, lots of those blue columns on the map represent some city with a Democratic mayor and city government.  If they play their cards right, I bet they can come up with policies that make their cities even more inviting to Democrats.

This is one area where the liberal entertainment industry that the Republicans so despise could really prove its worth. If it could make other cities have the same brand power as New York and L.A. it could help to attract other Democrats. (To some extent, this is happening with the city of Austin, Texas.)

One of key lessons of the study of history is that it often is useful to re-think the whole framework used for planning a strategy. It would be helpful if strategists regarded the electoral map as a playing field on which mobile units can move rather than as static territory to be gained or lost.

 

nineteen_eighty-four1

We take the existence of political parties as a given.  Even dictatorships usually have one party, which is strange if you think about it–a bit like having a sports league with only one team.  Why do you need a party if it doesn’t have to compete with any other party?

Nevertheless, political parties are everywhere.  They are clearly very popular. And yet, when you think about it, there is no obvious need for parties in a functioning democracy.

To run for office, you just need to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot in relevant districts.  After that, you need to get your message out somehow–usually through press interviews, ads, campaign rallies and speeches.  And you don’t need a party to do any of that.

Once you are in office, you have even less need for a party because, well… you are in office.  Now you just need to use the office to accomplish your goals.  Periodically, you need to campaign for re-election, but as we just saw, that can be accomplished without a party.

The obvious point is that you need money in order to run for office, and parties are a convenient way of raising money and in general providing the infrastructure for a successful campaign.

But there are other ways of raising money. If you’re a really effective and charismatic speaker–a major asset in politics–that in itself can be a fundraising mechanism. And if you are already wealthy, you may be able to self-finance campaigns for some offices. The super-rich want to control politics anyway; why don’t they just cut out the middleman and do it themselves?

Also, the rise of mass media means that it’s cheaper to get the word out than it used to be. Donald Trump famously got billions of dollars worth of “free advertising” for his campaign by dominating both mainstream press and social media headlines.

So, what are political parties for?

One thing they obviously do is provide a way of associating oneself with certain goals, policies and philosophies.  If someone is a Democrat, you can generally guess where they stand on most issues. That can save a candidate a lot of time–you know you’re guaranteed a certain number votes just from your party affiliation. More on that later…

Parties also provide a framework for running campaigns.  This is also a time-saving function.  Everyone knows the Republicans and Democrats are both going to field some candidate in the race for state governor, for example.  So they have some campaign infrastructure already in place–they just need to sort out who the candidate will be.

In this respect, political parties have surreptitiously taken over the political process simply by virtue of providing candidates with credibility.

It works like this: the press knows that either the Republican or the Democrat is going to win, and so they focus their coverage on them.  Similarly, donors know the same fact, and so donate primarily to one of the two candidates.

Thus, while it’s not apparent why you need a party apparatus, it is clear that once you have one, it’s hard to get rid of it.

Politicians have tried to challenge various parties over the years, and some have succeeded in radically changing what a given party’s platform is, or even in creating an entirely new party. But to my knowledge, nobody has ever challenged the party infrastructure itself.

H. Ross Perot challenged the Republicans and the Democrats in the 1990s.  His signature issue was the national debt and deficit. To some extent, he made his point–after he gained a sizeable share of the vote, the parties cooperated to balance the budget in order to placate the Perot voters. (It didn’t last long, but still.)

Even Trump, much as he tried to play the role of Outsider Underdog taking on the Establishment Machine, didn’t truly challenge that parties from outside.  Instead, he played divide and conquer, first taking over the Republicans and turning their infrastructure to serve him in defeating the Democrats.

The core Republican party system remained (and remains) in place; Trump just took charge of it and directed how it should be used.

If you define a party–as I suggested above–as a team of people interested in accomplishing some set of goals, it makes it hard to understand how this type of takeover is possible. There was a sizeable anti-Trump faction in the party, but most of them ended up supporting Trump anyway. You would expect that parties would be more fluid if they were truly about political philosophies.

Parties are much more tribal things–akin to supporting a sports team. Being a member of a given party is more a matter of one’s cultural values and upbringing than it is any specific political agenda.  Just as someone will cheer for their team even if the players and coaches are bad, they will support their party even if the candidate is bad.

People wonder why politicians are, in general, so ineffective.  There are a couple reasons for this, but I suspect one is that they are tremendously insulated from constituent pressure thanks to the power of the party system.  Once you have support of the party machinery, the job gets a lot easier because a certain number of people will support you just because you are from their party.

People always try to fix this problem by mounting primary challenges. Which is great, except that it has only two possible outcomes:

  • The challenger loses. This is usually what happens; it’s called the incumbent advantage.
  • The challenger wins, and then enjoys all the same benefits of the party machinery that his or her predecessor did, thus turning them into another cog in the machine.

The only office that doesn’t work like this is President, because the President has more power to shape the party’s agenda.

This is yet another cause of the weakening of the Legislative branch relative to the Executive. Over the decades, the party system produces weaker and weaker legislators, until finally Congress is populated by people who are totally beholden to their party, and thus, to their party’s leader.

And this puts us hot on the trail of figuring out what a political party actually is: it is a means of simplifying the complex business of government into a more understandable form. Namely, it turns a complicated system of numerous offices into a very simple hierarchy with one ultimate executive.

This explains what a political party is and, incidentally, explains why they have them even in dictatorships.  Political parties are what produce dictators.

That sounds like a pretty wild idea, doesn’t it?  It does to me.  I was surprised when I realized it as I was thinking about this. However, some other people in history have come to the same conclusion regarding political parties. For example:

“All obstructions to the execution of the Laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities… serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels, and modified by mutual interests…

[…]I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the state, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party, generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.”

George Washington’s Farewell Address. (1796)

electoralcollege2016-svg

 

There is no lack of explanations for what happened in 2016.  All the major groups have their version of it.  The centrist-Democrat political establishment one goes something like this:

“The Democrats failed to understand the economic anxiety voters in the Midwestern states felt as a result of globalization.  Donald Trump tapped in to these fears and won by turning out the midwestern white vote.”

That seems pretty reasonable.  But the more liberal, socialist-leaning elements of the Democratic party have a slightly different explanation:

“The people in the midwest were turned off by the flawed ‘establishment’ candidate Hillary Clinton, who they viewed as untrustworthy and unlikely to bring economic reforms that they wanted.  This depressed voter turnout, allowing Trump to capitalize on latent racism.”

This is pretty much the same thing, only it puts a little more blame on the Democrats and offers an implied prescription for the direction of the Party.

The Republicans, of course, have their own view as well.  It can be summarized as follows:

“The working men and women rose up to vote out the politically correct big government agenda of the Democrats, and supported a successful businessman who will put their interests first and bring back jobs and opportunity, and who is not afraid to say what he thinks.”

All of these explanations are fairly similar.  In an increasingly rare event in politics, all sides are in agreement on the basic facts; that Trump won, that Clinton lost, and that the Midwestern states were the reason why. They are all describing the same event, and so arrive at a set of explanations that satisfactorily summarize the same results in a way that suits their respective worldviews.

Each explanation seems plausible. Which one to use depends on the target audience, but any one of them could work in a typical piece of political analysis.

But chances are, you don’t want typical political analysis.  If you did, you would be reading CNN or Fox News or Huffington Post or Breitbart or some other site.  You’re here because you want more than a summary. You want to understand 2016 in a larger historical context, and to know about the economic, cultural and philosophical forces underpinning the shocking electoral result.

In other words, you want to know what really happened.

(more…)

the_capitol
The U.S. Capitol Building, as depicted in the post-apocalyptic video game “Fallout 3”

“Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” With those words, written more than 200 years ago, the authors of the Federalist Papers explained the most important safeguard of the American constitutional system. They then added this promise: “In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates.” Congress enacts laws, appropriates funds, confirms the president’s appointees. Congress can subpoena records, question officials, and even impeach them. Congress can protect the American system from an overbearing president.

But will it?

As politics has become polarized, Congress has increasingly become a check only on presidents of the opposite party. Recent presidents enjoying a same-party majority in Congress—Barack Obama in 2009 and 2010, George W. Bush from 2003 through 2006—usually got their way. And congressional oversight might well be performed even less diligently during the Trump administration.

–“How To Build An Autocracy”, by David Frum. The Atlantic. Read the whole thing.

Frum actually understates the case that Congress is weakening. The decline of the Legislative branch has been going on for at least a century.

It takes a long time to unravel a system of government like the one the Founders created.  “Erosion” is a fitting way to describe it–it’s occurred slowly, over generations.  But there is one entity that has consistently worked over the decades to reduce the power of the legislature.

That entity is… the United States Congress.

“Wait, what?” you say. “Congress is taking power away from itself?  Why would it do that?”

Well, it’s a long story.  And, as you probably suspected, it all began with the increasing costs of farming in the late 1800s.

Confused yet?  Trust me; this is going to be a long slog, but at the end of it, you will have a better understanding of the United States government.  If that seems boring or depressing, watch this video of Natalie Portman and Rashida Jones playing with kittens before you start. It always cheers me up.

All ready now? Let’s go.

(more…)

This weekend, in response to the Women’s Marches in various cities across the country, the new President tweeted:

The President of the United States had 140 characters to comment on massive protests against him and his policies, and he used 24 of them to offer the advice that celebrities were detrimental to the protest effort.

Now, why would he bother to do that? What interest does he have in teaching them how to protest more effectively?

Answer: the celebrities are actually very effective.  Thus, he is trying to discourage the Democrats and other groups opposed to him from utilizing them.

Let me repeat what I said in my first post on this subject:

[Celebrity supporters] made Democrats seem out of touch with the salt-of-the-Earth workers in the Rust Belt.

Moderate Republicans and Bernie Sanders voters alike have argued that the Democrats need to jettison celebrity support and focus on connecting with “everyday folks”.

It makes for a nice story. But it’s not true.

Again, it’s instructive to look at examples of a similar phenomenon from the past: Democrats advising Republicans on what sort of candidate they should run to win elections.

“You can never win with somebody so unpalatable to the diverse, socially liberal electorate”, they said. “Republicans need moderates like McCain and Romney if they want to win elections”.

This line of thinking was so influential that prominent Republicans bought into it.

The Democrats, meanwhile, convinced themselves that running against an extreme candidate like Trump would mean an easy win for them.

This was conventional wisdom in both the Republican and Democratic establishments. And it was wrong. The Republicans didn’t win with moderates, but did win with an extremist, completely contrary to what the Democrats (and the moderate Republicans) said would happen.

Let me repeat myself: Democrats would be wise not to listen to the advice given by their opponents.

I’m a big believer in the “charisma theory” of Presidential elections.  To summarize, the idea is that the more charismatic candidate always wins. It has held in every election since 1992, and examples can be found going back to 1960.  In fact, the only instance I know of in which the more charismatic candidate lost was in 1896, before TV or radio existed.

One curious thing about charismatic candidates is that seemingly they always go up against non-charismatic opponents–people who may be good, studious, diligent policy wonks, but who are also stiff and boring.  Or, to use the words of Paul Graham, the creator of the theory, “people who are earnest, but dull.”

Think about it: the big knock on Hillary Clinton was that she “couldn’t connect with people”–versus Trump, who could at least connect with angry white men.

Same deal in 2012: Obama was one of the most charismatic politicians in history, and Romney was famously stiff and awkward.

Again, 2008: Charismatic Obama against boring, tired John McCain.

It goes on. In 2004, folksy “just a regular guy” George W. Bush vs. famously boring speaker John Kerry.

2000: Folksy Bush beats dull, awkward Al Gore.

1996: Legendarily charismatic Bill Clinton beats old, tired Bob Dole.

It goes on and on. Now and then you get elections where neither candidate was charismatic (Bush vs. Dukakis, Nixon vs. McGovern and Humphrey) but you seemingly never get two charismatic candidates running against each other. (Imagine what Trump vs. Obama would have been like!)

That seems highly improbable when you consider that there are lots of charismatic politicians, and that charismatic politicians have an innate advantage over non-charismatic ones. They should be running against each other all the time. What’s going on?

One possibility is that charisma is a winner-take-all sort of thing, in that whichever candidate is more charismatic automatically makes the opponent seem stiff and boring by comparison.  So if A is more charismatic than B, B looks boring, but B might be more charismatic than C, and make C look boring.

But it doesn’t seem to work this way.  Nixon lost to Kennedy on charisma, but he beat Humphrey and McGovern without getting any more charismatic.  Charisma simply wasn’t a factor in those elections.

Another possible explanation is that when one party has been out of power for a while, they become more likely to nominate a charismatic candidate. (Charismatic candidates usually start as long-shot outsiders, e.g. Obama and Trump) Similarly, when a party has been in power for a while, they are more likely to nominate a careerist politician who has paid their dues in the party. (e.g. McCain, H. Clinton)

If that’s the case, it apparently runs in an eight year cycle, conveniently matching up with Presidential term limits, and thus preventing possible “high-charisma showdowns”, as would have happened with Clinton vs. Bush, or Obama vs. Trump.

This could be the case, although it seems like an awfully big coincidence that it takes almost exactly eight years for one party to get a charismatic candidate, and that the other party seemingly forgets this lesson every eight years.

What are your thoughts on this pattern?

 

Everyone is talking about the above speech.  Trump himself, who can never resist a celebrity feud, was compelled to respond on Twitter.  Apparently, that took priority over listening to intelligence briefings.

Meghan McCain, the daughter of Senator John McCain, also tweeted about it, saying:

This Meryl Streep speech is why Trump won. And if people in Hollywood don’t start recognizing why and how – you will help him get re-elected

This echoes many commentators, both Republicans and Democrats, who blame Hillary Clinton’s loss partly on her support from various actors, singers, and other celebrities. It made Democrats seem out of touch with the salt-of-the-Earth workers in the Rust Belt.

Moderate Republicans and Bernie Sanders voters alike have argued that the Democrats need to jettison celebrity support and focus on connecting with “everyday folks”.

It makes for a nice story. But it’s not true.

President Obama received overwhelming celebrity support in both of his campaigns. That didn’t hurt him a bit.  If anything, it helped, because many people admire celebrities and respect their opinions.

Moreover, Trump went out of his way to bring up all his celebrity endorsements, even though he had way fewer than Clinton.  He would even claim celebrities supported him when it wasn’t clear that they did.

So, if that’s the case, why do we keep hearing this “blame-the-celebs” line?

Simple: Republicans fear the Democrats’ famous and influential supporters.  So they are trying to stop them.

This is nothing new. Lots of Democrats (and moderate Republicans) said Republicans could never win with someone like Trump as their nominee.  They claimed they could not get enough votes with a candidate so widely despised.

But clearly, that claim was incorrect. And many of the people who made it probably knew it was incorrect. The real reason they did not want the Republicans to nominate Trump was precisely because they feared he would win.

It is the same thing here: Republicans are attempting to neutralize the Democrats’ advantage in mobilizing voters using celebrity endorsements. Democrats should not listen to them.

boris-grishenko-20090224055451786-000

According to Intelligence reports, Russian hackers influenced the U.S. Presidential election by hacking and leaking Democratic emails.  The Russians also sought to influence the election in a number of other ways, all of which fall broadly under the label of “propaganda.”

Moreover, the goal of all these operations, the reports say, was to help Trump’s campaign and hurt Clinton’s.

All this has left many of the Republicans–normally National Security hawks–in a bit of a quandary. Most of them seem to (at least implicitly) subscribe to the following view:

“Yes, it is bad that Russia hacked communications belonging to one of our political parties.  And yes, we should probably stop them from doing that in the future.

But, since there is no evidence that Russia tampered with the actual vote totals, it in no way casts doubt on the election or makes it illegitimate. The people voted in a fair election, and Trump won enough electoral votes to win the election.”

The argument can be distilled down to “it’s not our fault if people voted for us on the basis of foreign propaganda.”

There seems to be a sort of “gentleman’s agreement” among the major powers of the world that they won’t interfere in each others’ elections.  But, to quote the movie Lawrence of Arabia: “There may be honor among thieves, but there’s none in politicians.” So ti’s not really surprising that the agreement got violated.

Hillary Clinton said she believed Russia carried out this operation because Putin had “personal beef” with her. Apparently, Putin blames her for interfering in Russian elections in 2011, and took this opportunity to get revenge.

This makes me wonder: would the Russians have conducted an operation like this no matter who Clinton’s opponent was? Or was it motivated by Trump’s business ties and friendly stance toward the Russians?  In other words, were the Russians primarily trying to hurt Clinton, or to help Trump?

That may seem like a distinction without a difference, but I think it is a question worth asking.