I remember an episode of The McLaughlin Group from years ago, in which John McLaughlin asked Pat Buchanan “Who won the week?” Buchanan hesitated, and McLaughlin pressed him harder: “Come on, Pat! Someone’s got to win the week!”
Buchanan finally answered that nobody had won the week–“It was a draw,” he explained. McLaughlin let it go after that, though he didn’t seem happy about it.
McLaughlin was a pioneer in this entertaining-but-superficial style of political reporting. But as is so often the case, those who followed the trail have mimicked all of his flaws while picking up none of his entertaining virtues.
And so the political press covers everything with a fast-paced and myopic focus on which groups happen to be winning or losing at the moment. In general, the extent of one side’s win or loss is over-hyped, giving an impression of a more permanent victory or defeat than is warranted.
For instance, remember a month ago when President Trump was winning in the headlines because the press liked his address to Congress? That seems like ancient history now, because all the headlines are about the defeat Trump suffered when his health care bill couldn’t pass the House.
It’s sort of like coverage of a sporting event, except that unlike sports analysts, political pundits tend to assume that whichever team happens to be winning at the moment will continue to do so forever, even if the lead is extremely small.
The real problem with this is not just that leads to absurdly hyperbolic analysis, or even “we have always been at war with Eastasia“-style retconning in the way journalists re-phrase narratives to make them appear consistent.
“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.
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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-richwant to controlpolitics 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.
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.
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.”
Purely as a piece of rhetoric, I liked his Inaugural Address more. For one thing, it was shorter. In general, the fewer words you use to make your point, the better.
That said, the pundit class that this speech was clearly designed to impress obviously prefers long speeches that cover too many topics to have any punch to them.
I suspect Bannon wrote most of it. It sounds like him.
I have never liked the “Free Trade / Fair Trade” line, which Democrats have often used in the past and which Trump used here. “Fair Trade” in this context is a meaningless phrase that can be used to justify virtually any tariff or other protectionist measure, whether warranted or not.
Of course, I’m sure it will play great with the “Reagan Democrats” (or now, I guess, “Trump Democrats”) who are the linchpin of his coalition.
It was woefully short on specifics, but no one expects that out of these anymore. They are just glorified performances of political theater, and have been as long as I can remember. (And Trump excels at theater.)
I am not sure why the Press is so surprised by the style of the speech. I guess they were expecting him to do his usual rambling and improvisational monologue. I wasn’t expecting that. I was expecting more or less what we got.
Moreover, this is not the first time Trump has done something like this. He gave “normal” speeches both at the convention and in his victory speech on election night. Trump has never had an issue acting like a normal politician for brief periods of time–it’s just that he’s never sustained it. And there’s mounting evidence to suggest he doesn’t need to.
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 Breitbartor 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.
Well, it’s been about 8 days since Donald Trump officially became President. Here are some facts that have jumped out to me about his administration:
1. Trump is influenced heavily by what he sees on TV, especially CNN and Fox News.
Starting with the crowd size kerfuffle, it’s clear that image matters a lot to President Trump. He was upset when he saw reports on CNN comparing his smaller crowd with the one at the Inauguration of President Obama in 2009. He was so incensed that he sent his newly-minted spokesman out to argue with the Press Corps about it. This was widely seen as a huge disaster, since it was done in such haste and with such lack of preparation, and was ultimately a losing argument anyway.
That has been a pattern throughout the week: Trump reacts to what he sees on television. Perhaps the most striking example was this:
14 minutes apart: Fox says “ungrateful traitor,” Trump says “ungrateful traitor,” Fox says “weak leader,” Trump says “weak leader.” pic.twitter.com/f7urTOUG1L
Bottom line: Trump watches the news, and responds to what he sees. This is interesting because it inadvertently makes Fox News and CNN way more powerful than they already were, since they are clearly influencing the opinions of the most powerful man in the world.
If I were an executive at either network, I’d be delighted by this. It means that their reports now carry unprecedented weight. This could be used to shape the President’s agenda in a variety of ways.
2. Stephen Bannon is the driving force behind the administration’s actions.
Not really a surprise, but good to have it confirmed. Bannon’s hand was obvious in Trump’s inaugural address, and all subsequent actions have conformed to Bannon’s pro-nationalist, anti-globalist philosophy.
Clearly, Bannon is the main guy Trump listens to. What is not yet clear is whether Trump’s other advisors are ok with this, or if they are disagreeing with Bannon and being overruled. I suspect, based on the leaks that have occurred so far, that at least some of them are not satisfied with this state of affairs.
There appear to be two distinct lines of command that go as follows:
Note which one of these branches is tasked with crafting substantive action, and which one was used for a pointless and unwinnable argument with the press.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.