Everyone is talking about the Supreme Court’s ruling on Obamacare.  But I don’t want to talk about that now.  I want to address another controversial 5-4 ruling, one that many said was the last one before this to garner such attention.  James Fallows alluded to it in his hyperbolic-yet-interesting-but-ultimately-irrelevant pre-ruling post: the curious case of Bush v. Gore.

Since I didn’t start blogging until nine years after that decision, I’ve never really talked about it on here.  It’s quite interesting.  What does our go-to source, Wikipedia, tell us? 

The Court held that the Equal Protection Clause guarantees to individuals that their ballots cannot be devalued by “later arbitrary and disparate treatment”. Even if the recount was fair in theory, it was unfair in practice. The record, as weighed by the Florida Supreme Court, suggested that different standards were seemingly applied to the recount from ballot to ballot, precinct to precinct, and county to county, even when identical types of ballots and machines were used.

So, Florida screwed up the recount, huh?  What the heck were they doing, counting in Greek numerals?  How can you screw up a simple vote count unless corruption is involved?  Well, whatever.  Then:

The Court stated that the per curiam opinion’s applicability was “limited to the present circumstances, for the problem of equal protection in election processes generally presents many complexities.”

I have read this over and over.  I am no legal expert, but I can read English.  I am going to write, in a separate paragraph, in bold, my reading of this.  If you are a legal expert, please explain to me if I am making mistake in the following paragraph, for I can see no other interpretation.

The Court had to make sure their ruling applied only in that case, because otherwise it could conceivably call into question many other elections in the history of the United States, and future ones as well.  Certainly, every recount was now suspect.  According to their findings, known methods of vote counting may have been unconstitutional.  I mean, if they couldn’t recount votes in a constitutional manner, how could anyone be sure they had counted them right in the first place?

I am not saying the Court was wrong.  I am only saying that if they were right, there existed a possibility that the entire system was fundamentally flawed.  At least that’s how I read it.  Am I wrong?

However, this part was a 7-2 ruling.  The 5-4 ruling was the controversial one, the one that said they couldn’t try a constitutional recount.

Conservatives have been quick to point out that the Court did not decide the election for Bush because, had the recount continued in those counties, Bush would have won anyway.  they cite this New York Times story from 2001:

A close examination of the ballots found that Mr. Bush would have retained a slender margin over Mr. Gore if the Florida court’s order to recount more than 43,000 ballots had not been reversed by the United States Supreme Court.

The story went on to note:

But[…] Mr. Gore might have won if the courts had ordered a full statewide recount of all the rejected ballots.

Please observe that the story is from 2001.  Not 2000.  That means that people only found out what would have happened almost a year later.  The Court making their decision knowing that if they stopped the recount Bush would win, whereas if the recount continued, it was unknown whether he or Gore would win.  Now, we learned after the fact that Bush would have won had they allowed the count in those counties to continue, thus rendering it a moot point, but they did not know that at the time.  We must evaluate their decisions based on the knowledge they possessed when they made the ruling:

  • Stop recount: Bush chance of victory = 100%
  • Continue recount: Bush chance of victory = x, where x < 100%

I think it’s clear what the dominant strategies are in this case for any political partisan, no?

But the Supreme Court is not political!  They are just a machine that ruthlessly interprets the law, not biased in any way, shape or form, right?  They wouldn’t decide an election based on anything other than legal precedent.  That wouldn’t be logical.  What would Vulcan High Command say?

Let’s hear from Justice Scalia on the matter:

There you have it.  They had to do it!  Everyone was laughing at us!

Two Socialists: Benito Mussolini and Oscar Wilde (Images via Wikipedia)

Monica Crowley, conservative pundit, has been going around promoting her new book that calls for a “happy warrior” to unite the Republicans and lead them onward to glory.  Somebody like Ronald Reagan.  (Surprise!)

In a book-promoting interview with the Daily Caller, she accuses President Obama of carrying out “economic fascism”.  This is a rather ingenious accusation, because it allows her to associate Obama with fascism by citing a characteristic of fascism that was not a distinguishing feature of it.  It is the old Jonah Goldberg maneuver, only more brazen than Goldberg usually is.

It is true that the fascists did indeed believe in regulating the economy, and intervening in markets and yes–they even believed in doing it to benefit the poor, so long as “the poor” were of the approved nationality and/or race.  All this is true.  But it is not the hallmark of fascism; the hallmark of fascism is ultra-nationalism and, in the case of the Nazis especially, violent racism.  The economic policies of the fascists are just that–economic policies.  They are by no means unique to fascists, nor does belief in them necessarily imply belief  in their other tenets.

There are kinds of socialism: national socialism, aka fascism, aka Nazism.  And then there is international socialism.  The two are very different.  And then there is the artistic, peaceful socialism, like that described by Oscar Wilde.  And moreover, there are all sorts of economic policies that involve government intervening in the economy for one reason or another, and fascism is but one of them.

Saying Obama’s policies are “economic fascism” is like saying he is a “Nazi tie-wearer”.  It is true that he wears ties.  And it is true that Nazis wore ties.  And yet that is not the tell-tale characteristic of a Nazi, so it is merely an insult, not an analysis.

Here we observe one of the dangers of academic tenure…

The short version, if you don’t have time to watch the video, is like this: evidently having nothing better to do, Roberto Unger, a former professor of President Obama’s, has concluded that same President Obama must be defeated. This defeat will, so he says, “allow the voice of democratic prophecy to speak once again in American life.”

Obviously, the good professor knows this will not happen under President Romney.  But the defeat of Obama is necessary to allow for true progressivism to return, he believes.

Let us look at history, shall we?  From 1968 until 1992, the Republicans won every Presidential election but one.  The Democrats finally got Clinton in ’92, but this was largely through the “New Democrat” strategy of adopting many laissez-faire Republican economic policies.  In other words, the Democrats accomplished their victory only by becoming much more like the Republicans on economic issues.  Not exactly what Prof. Unger is looking for.

Cast back a bit further, and we find the shoe on the other foot: From 1932 until 1952, the Republicans did not win a Presidential election. When they finally did win, it was with Dwight Eisenhower, a war hero and a man so friendly to the New Deal that Republican extremists suspected him of communism.  Clearly, the Republicans had to capitulate a good deal to the Democrats on economic policy.

In recent times, there are two instances where a party lost an election and four years later returned with a more extreme candidate: 1964 and 1980.  Goldwater was more extreme than Nixon, and he was crushed.  Reagan was more extreme than Ford, and he won handily.  So, it’s kind of a mixed bag.  (Not, of course, if you factor in charisma; then it is all quite explicable.)

The record is pretty clear: parties rarely favor their more radical economic policies in the wake of sound defeats.  They do just the opposite, trying to emulate and subsume elements of the winning party’s policies.  This is especially true for Democrats.  I therefore judge Prof. Unger’s plan a bad one.

(Video via Huffington Post.  Also check out this post about Prof. Unger at The Reaction.)

Image via Wikipedia

“Gentlemen, this is a football.”  Thus did the famous coach Vince Lombardi supposedly begin every first team meeting of the season, while holding up same.   The point being, you always start off with the basics. However, I don’t know about the AIFA; some of their players might be seeing a football for the first time.

The other day, somebody got to this blog by searching for the terms “how would max weber view american football”. I don’t know if he was even thinking of the same Max Weber I’m so fond of, but regardless, I thought to myself: “Heck, I would like to read that article.”  So, here is a cursory attempt at writing it.

Of course, it’s hard to figure out the answer without a Ouija board and some arcane black magic.  And even then, it would probably only be something simplistic like “the competitiveness reflects the Protestant ethic” or “the Browns are 6 and 10 this year, best case.”

I’m not too familiar with his most famous writings about religion; I’ve mostly studied Weber’s contributions to political thought. Long-time readers probably remember his three types of authority:

  1. Charismatic authority
  2. Traditional authority
  3. Legal authority

Well, I suppose he’d think that coaches like Rex Ryan and players like Tim Tebow have charismatic authority, whereas coaches like Belichick and players like Ray Lewis rely on a sort of traditional authority–they have enjoyed a lot of success, so people are supposed to automatically respect them.  The equivalent to Legal authority is, well, the referees and the commissioner. (As the Saints are discovering.)

But this doesn’t tell us anything about the broader social phenomenon of football. Maybe Weber would note the similarity of the sport to religion.  After all, some fans follow it with the same zeal that people follow religions. They even collect artifacts and relics relating to the heroes of the sport.  And then, of course, there’s the ubiquitous Mr. Tebow. (I know I’m breaking my vow here. I’m sorry. But I promise you one thing: you will never see another blogger try as hard not to mention him as I will try the rest of the off-season.)

I once saw an NFL Films show about the Pittsburgh Steelers championship run in 2005.  It started off with this quasi-hymn or chant-like music that sounded religious and very eerie all at once. Imagine “Duel of the Fates“, only way creepier.  It seemed pretty serious for a bunch of football highlights.  But there are people who definitely see football as nearly as important. (Another Lombardi line, of which there are some variations: “All that matters is your God, your family and the Green Bay Packers”.)

Still, Weber studied religions as a way of highlighting differences in cultures and people’s philosophies.  The superficial resemblance of sports fanatics to religious fanatics is obviously more about the features of fanaticism than religion.  So we’re still at a dead end.

Let’s approach this from a different direction: we know that American football, though wildly popular in the United States, is not the number one sport in any other country. Perhaps the reasons for this are tied to “American exceptionalism”.  But this is more Tocqueville than it is Weber. (Where is that Ouija board?) And unfortunately, I cannot find much that Weber had to say about America.

So once again, I am frustrated.  I leave it to you, blogosphere and distinguished commenters, to sort this problem out.  What would Max Weber think of American football?

For a long time, Thomas Edison was held up as a model of American ingenuity, an inspiring figure whose inventions changed life for everyone. But, relatively recently, Nikola Tesla has received more acclaim as the better inventor, and his works are considered to have been unfairly neglected in favor of Edison’s. lately, it seems like Tesla is more popular than Edison. Perhaps it’s just one of those fashions that goes back and forth. (You might even say it “alternates” which one is “current”.)

Freddie DeBoer linked to a comic that exemplifies the lately fashionable Tesla-worship. I agree with Freddie’s reaction; even though I’m disposed to be more sympathetic to Tesla, that comic made me feel kind of uneasy about it, so strident was its tone.

I know I’ve used this quote before in other contexts, and I hate to keep using the same things, but damn it if it isn’t completely appropriate for summing up Edison and Tesla:

“One of them is half-mad–and the other, wholly unscrupulous.”–Claude Rains, as Mr. Dryden in “Lawrence of Arabia.”

Edison was a cutthroat businessman, there can be very little doubt. You don’t enjoy the kind of success he did without pulling some pretty mean stuff, I think. Tesla, meanwhile, was pretty clearly crazy. That was probably why he was such a great innovator.

For an example, it’s not clear to me whether Tesla’s “particle gun” was actually something real or just an idle thought he had. I sometimes think certain people–like the author of the above-mentioned comic–are too quick to credit Tesla with “inventing” stuff when actually it was just stuff he dreamed up in some of his less-rational moments.

Not that he wasn’t a great inventor. I’m just saying he’s a little over-celebrated. Of course, so was Edison when you look at all the rotten things he did, such as electrocuting animals for a PR campaign. I’m sure a lot of the admiration for Tesla comes as a direct result of people hearing in school about how wonderful Edison was.

There’s also an under-current of culture war to it, I think. Consider: the wily, Midwestern-born businessman/showman vs. the misunderstood, introverted immigrant. I don’t know if anyone has ever done a poll to look for correlation between political affiliation and support of Tesla or Edison, but I bet I know how it would come out.

I think part of it is the misrepresentation of Edison–like the author of the comic said, “he didn’t invent the light-bulb, he sold it.” Is that wrong?  Why, people greatly admire Steve Jobs, but if you think about it, a lot of what he did was selling what Jonathan Ive designed. That doesn’t make Jobs a phony; it makes him great at what he did: selling stuff.

Andrew Sullivan muses:

Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy… still poisons our politics. For a very long time, the deep cultural divide in this country was in part managed by the Democratic party. Its alliance of Southern conservatives and Northeastern liberals – perhaps exemplified by the Kennedy-Johnson ticket – gave what we now call parts of red and blue America a joint incentive to work out their differences through a common partisan affiliation. The had a fellowship that facilitated compromise. A less coherent ideological party structure actually created a more coherent political debate. I wonder if civil rights legislation would ever have been achieved without this.

That’s one way to look at it. But as Lyndon Johnson supposedly said at the time, the Civil Rights act was also what ended that coalition. Nixon happened to be in the right place at the right time to benefit from it, but the South was not going to support a Democrat again after that. I’ve talked about this before, but in my view, Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” didn’t really change much; it was larger societal changes that destroyed the New Deal coalition.

Recently, in the satirical paper The Onion, there was a story headlined “New Breeding Program Aimed At Keeping Moderate Republicans From Going Extinct“. It’s an amusing little piece, and it highlights a concern often voiced in the press–particularly the liberal press: why aren’t there more moderate Republicans?

But, you will notice I have said “in the liberal press”. Obviously, the liberals would want moderate republicans; if you’re a liberal, they just make your job easier. Or, to put it in a more positive way, they act as a needed moderating influence on the liberal project. But then, if you are a Republican, you don’t want to moderate the liberal project. You want the liberal project, as Zaphod Beeblebrox would say, “caught and shot now.” (Metaphor here; not accusing them of inciting violence)

This is so self-evidently true for someone like me, who first became politically aware in the early 2000s, that it is a sort of circular logic: there are no moderate Republicans because to be a Republican is to not be remotely accommodating towards liberalism. You can be what they call a RINO, but those people are so hated by the majority of Republicans  as to be effectively Democrats. Thus, the concept of a moderate Republican appears inherently impossible.

But it was not always so; there used to be moderate Republicans. As Wikipedia says, they were called “Rockefeller Republicans“, after Nelson Rockefeller. They are, says Wiki:

[T]ypically center-right, reject far-right policies, and are culturally liberal. Many espouse government and private investments in environmentalism, healthcare and higher education as necessities for the nation’s growth, in the tradition of Nelson Rockefeller, Alexander Hamilton and Theodore Roosevelt. In general, Rockefeller Republicans oppose socialism and the redistribution of wealth while supporting some pragmatic regulation of business and federal social programs in matters pertaining to the public good.

Well, as we know, the term “right” and its brother “left” are pretty much useless, but that phrase “culturally liberal” is interesting. Remember that one. The rest is basically saying “they oppose redistribution of wealth, except sometimes”. But the article continues:

Historically, Rockefeller Republicans were moderate or liberal on domestic and social policies. They typically favored New Deal programs and a social safety net; they sought to run these programs more efficiently than the Democrats… They were strong supporters of big business and Wall Street… In foreign policy, they tended to be Hamiltonian, espousing internationalist and realist policies, supporting the United Nations and promoting American business interests abroad.

All this sounds rather familiar, though it’s true we haven’t heard of it from the Republicans in quite some time. Still it sounds rather like… Obama. And Clinton. So, I think it’s pretty clear what happened to the Rockefeller Republicans: they became Democrats. Or, more accurately, many of the Democrats became Rockefeller Republicans. Like I said, Republicans force the Democrats to yield on economic issues for the sake of social issues.

It all started with the Democratic Leadership Council. If you condensed the DLC’s plan for the Party into one sentence, it would be “be Rockefeller Republicans”. And it worked, because Clinton got elected. And whether by choice or by necessity, Obama has been carrying out a similar set of policies

That’s one mystery solved, then. The Rockefeller Republicans have all gravitated to the Democratic Party, and in fact, are the Party’s most electable candidates. The name is gone, but who cares about what party people happen to be? The point is that a certain group’s views are represented, not the name that group happens to go by. The Republicans have no need of moderates in their party, not only because they hate them, but because their views are represented tolerably well elsewhere.

Enough of Rockefeller Republicans, though. What about Rockefeller himself? Why wasn’t he ever President, since apparently his way of doing things is quite popular. It was because of what we would today call a “values” issue. He divorced his wife and married a divorcee in 1963. This was quite shocking back then, and dealt a blow to his career from which he never really recovered. It wouldn’t be such a big deal these days, of course, but it was at the time.

The cosmopolitan, technocratic, internationalist politician brought down because the “middle Americans” didn’t care for his lifestyle. Now we know how old that story is! The “Culture War” started even sooner than Pat Buchanan thought. The Republican party’s appeals to “traditional values” are attempts to replay this on a larger scale. That is, on the scale of parties, not people. The Republican party says it stands for these values, and the Democratic party does not. For those who believe this, the character and deeds of the individuals involved matters little. Thus can a thrice-married adulterer claim to defend “the sacrament of marriage”.

People say the country has shifted “to the right”. But that means nothing, as we know. It would be far better to say it has become much more like the most anti-government forces in the 1960 Republican party. The increasingly Rockefelleresque Democrats only go to prove this, but we also must remember that the country has become far more socially liberal than most people would have speculated it would in 1964.

Consider: interracial marriage was illegal in some states in 1964. Now, gay marriage is legal in many states. Think about what a massive change in attitudes this is. The sexual revolution was a major change, and I very much doubt there is anyone, anywhere, who will say this constituted a shift “to the right”.

So, as has been the upshot of my last two posts in this series, the country has become much more liberal on social issues, and much more laissez-faire on economic issues. (Actually, the latter could also be called “liberal”, in the classical sense, but that just confuses everything.) In my terminology, simultaneously more cosmopolitan and more materialist. Admittedly, however, this has not happened without a good deal of complaining from the nationalists.

Overall, this doesn’t sound too bad. There are worse things than to be governed by Democrats who act like moderate Republicans from the 1960s. Granted, it’s inevitable that some Democrats will feel a little bit of angst that their party doesn’t do much to help the average worker like it used to, but when you look at the alternative–a return to the social dynamics of the 1950s–there aren’t many Democrats who would like to make the swap.

Is everything alright then? Not really. For openers, the Republicans’ economic policy is somewhat flawed, to put it mildly. This introduces some problems into the system. Like massive Recessions, for instance. That right there is something of a drawback. And there are some other issues, as well. But for now, we can at least be happy knowing why there are so few moderate Republicans.

If you really want to understand American politics, forget the statistics, the regression analyses and all that. You don’t need to know that to understand this. All you need to do is look at a map.

I exaggerate, but only a bit. We have an advantage over, say, European countries in that the U.S. is such a big country, and it has had only two major political parties whose colors may be easily and neatly displayed on a map of our great country. It can look pretty cool. For instance, here is the electoral map of the 1896 election, between our old friend William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley:


Cool, huh? Let’s do another. Fast forward 104 years to the Al Gore vs. George W. Bush election:


That’s interesting. It’s practically the exact opposite, except that there are a few new states. Well, we’d expect a few things to change in 104 years, right? The one commonality between the two elections is that in both instances the Republican won, although in the latter case the Democrat got more votes.

Well, as they sing in the opening number to The Music Man:

Ya can talk all ya wanna, but it’s different than it was!

No, it ain’t, no, it ain’t; but ya gotta know the territory!

So, what made this happen? Did the parties change? Or did where their supporters live change? Or both?

Clearly, this is so a big a gap as to be meaningless. The big issue in the 1896 election was bimetallism. The big issue in the 2000 election was who seemed less likely to have an affair with an intern. There’s no point in making the comparison.

Besides, as we established in part one, a seismic change in American politics occurred sometime in the 1960s. So, the famous one. JFK vs. Richard Nixon:


Well, this one is interesting because there’s a third guy: Senator Harry Byrd, a segregationist Democrat. The Democrats were starting to split over that issue, but they still had no intention of voting for any Republicans. But, Kennedy still carried most of the Southern vote. And as we all know, he won, only to have his Presidency tragically ended.

Then in 1964, LBJ won in a massive landslide, because everyone thought Barry Goldwater was crazy:


But, Goldwater did win the South, voting for him because of his opposition to Civil Rights! So, the South has now gone to the extreme measure of voting for a Republican. Interesting.

LBJ decides not to run. Richard Nixon returns. 1968 is Nixon vs. Vice-President Humphrey. And George Wallace is also in the mix, representing the segregationist Democratic side, as opposed to the Northern liberal Democratic side represented by Humphrey. Here’s how that went:


As we all know, Nixon famously employed a “southern strategy” in this election. That is, he tried to attract those Southerners who were opposed to Civil Rights. What is less famous is that, as you can see, this strategy failed miserably. Wallace—who was a Democrat, except for his opposition to Civil Rights, won most of the Southern states.

Compare how Nixon did in 1968 with how he did in 1960. What states did he flip from blue to red? New Mexico, the Carolinas, Illinois, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware. The only “Southern” States in that are the Carolinas. And when you factor in that Washington and Maine flipped from red to blue, it’s even less impressive.

There’s a scene in the play A Man for All Seasons, where Sir Thomas More tells Richard: “It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world… But for Wales!” I like to imagine someone telling Nixon: “It profits a man nothing to give the soul of his party for the whole world… But for the Carolinas!”

As Wikipedia notes “The independent candidacy of George Wallace, former Democratic governor of Alabama, partially negated the Southern strategy”. Yeah, “partially.” Wallace was a Democrat, except, as I said, he was pro-segregation. Southerners had been pro-Democrat for almost a century, and so were quite happy with their policies until the Civil Rights thing happened.

It’s often remarked that it’s a shame American politics has only two parties; that this forces a drastic oversimplification of the nuance of possible political positions. People often wish for a third party to allow for more varied politics. In general, I agree with this sentiment. But in 1968, I really wish there had only been two choices, Nixon and Humphrey, and not just because I despise Wallace’s policies.

The reason for this is that then the Southerners would have really faced a tough choice: between Democrat Humphrey, who belonged to the party they’d been voting for all their lives but who supported Civil Rights, and Republican Nixon who belonged to the party they hated, but who offered some coded hints that he wasn’t altogether for Civil Rights.

It’s true that in ’64 the South had voted for Goldwater. But I bet they knew that he had no chance of actually winning, and thus it was more of a symbolic protest vote against Civil Rights. I wonder if they would have had the nerve to cast their ballots for him if he’d actually had a chance. After all, his free-market, small-government stuff can’t have been completely to the taste of long-time New Deal Democrats.

But because they could vote for Wallace in ‘68, they did, and thus it remains a mystery whether they would have chosen Nixon or Humphrey. In any case, though, what we know for sure is that the South’s favorite candidate was a New Deal Democrat who opposed integration. In other words, they voted to maintain the New Deal coalition pre-1964.

People think that 1968 was a “realigning election”. They’re wrong. The South implicitly stated that they didn’t want realignment, they wanted things to stay like they had been. It was however an obvious prelude to a realigning election, because it made it clear there were irreconcilable differences between Northern and Southern Democrats.

The realignment came in 1972, when Nixon beat George McGovern. Actually, Nixon didn’t just beat McGovern; he crushed him. It was a massive landslide:


Imagine you’re a Republican strategist. (Just for a minute; otherwise you might lose your soul) Which election would you use as the blueprint: 1968 or 1972? In ’68 Nixon won because the Democrats split on Civil Rights. In ’72 he won because he persuaded almost everyone that McGovern was a crazy commie-pinko liberal. “Amnesty, Abortion and Acid,” was the phrase they stuck him with.

There was no Democratic split in ’72, and there was no Southern strategy, either. It was a massive victory for Nixon everywhere you looked.

This is the “realigning election”, because this is the one where the Republicans discovered they could run on social issues and appeal to nationalist sentiments by casting the Democrat as an unpatriotic, radical, cosmopolitan elitist.

This still goes on to the present day. The only thing is that sometimes the Democrat manages to win anyway by (a)pretty much going along with Republican economic policies and (b)being more charismatic than the Republican candidate. This strategy was pioneered by Bill Clinton and copied to a large extent by Barack Obama. (Carter, the other Democratic President post-Nixon, simply got in because of anger over the Watergate scandal.)

From 1972 onward, Republicans have known that the key to winning is to turn the nationalists against the cosmopolitan Democrats. As I have said before, this ensures continual Republican viability and forces the Democrats to capitulate time and again on economic issues for the sake of social issues.

Now, as I always feel compelled to say, I’m not an expert in these things; just an amateur. I have pretty firm feelings about this, but I still feel like I ought to make it clear I’m not a professional political scientist.

Recommended reading

Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm and Nixonland. (Both are excellent reads, and have influenced my thinking on politics tremendously.)

Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?