Notes on a Theory…

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Posts Tagged ‘democracy

The State of the Union is Ambivalent (2013)

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Last year Elias Isquith asked me to contribute a piece to a forum he did on the State of the Union speech. There was some dispute between the contributors over how they read the speech which was my jumping off point. I’m posting it again before this year’s speech because most of what I had to say is still applicable, even if some of the details have changed.

Obama 2010 SOTU

Pete Souza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The fact that people have such different readings of this speech isn’t that surprising. It reads to me like it was designed to do just that – let each of us hear what we want to hear.  Our normal way of understanding the SOTU is outward.  We tend to think of the president seeking to persuade the opposition or independents.  But there are two ways we might think of ‘us’ as the target.  First, speeches can be used to mobilize one’s own supporters to action. Second, they can be used to demobilize one’s own team. But ultimately, the impact depends on how we react.  We can use the good things that were mentioned as a resource, in making demands.  Or we can assume that the White House has the issue in hand and therefore we can stand down – at least until we get marching orders.  The latter is a losing proposition, regardless of your thoughts about the president’s own motives. I cringe at the barrage of emails about supporting the president’s agenda. We should have our own agenda, and pressure him to support us.

Of course, we all know that the president faces a hostile Republican majority in the House, and an obstructionist Republican minority in the Senate which, as a result of Harry Reid’s unwillingness to undo the filibuster, has a great deal of power.  Because of the sequester, there will likely be fiscal legislation, and because of Republicans’ fear over losing the Latino vote in perpetuity, immigration legislation will at least get a hearing.

So I thought I’d focus more on some other things, including those the White House has more control over.

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Written by David Kaib

January 27, 2014 at 11:13 am

Targeting the Right To Vote

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bentele_obrienI’ve written about voting rights before, a topic that has become all the more urgent in the wake of recent efforts to restrict voting rights and the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act. Keith Bentele and Erin O’Brien have a piece examining recent GOP efforts at adopting various voting barriers: Jim Crow 2.0? Why States Consider and Adopt Restrictive Voter Access Policies. (Full disclosure, Erin is a good friend from my doctoral program, and I provided feedback on the paper.) Their empirical findings are going to get the most attention, and they are certainly important. I’ll review them below. But the larger implications are important too, and since I fear these may get lost I want to discuss them more fully.

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Written by David Kaib

December 18, 2013 at 10:56 am

Public Support for Abortion Rights and the Perils of “Support”

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Jodi Jacobson, at RH Reality Check, talks about the disconnect between the public and politicians on abortion, which touches on something I’ve been emphasizing here.

Consistent rejection by actual voters of attempts to give the state control over women’s bodies tells us three things. One, polls that attempt to divide people into neat boxes such as “pro-choice” and “pro-life” or to measure support for hypothetical restrictions on abortion in generic terms do not reflect how people really feel about safe abortion care. In fact, when asked specifically about who should make decisions on how and when to bear children and under what circumstances to terminate a pregnancy, voters make clear they do not want to interfere in the deeply personal decisions they believe belong between a woman, her partner and family, and her medical advisers, even in cases of later abortion. In short, voters do not want legislators playing god or doctor.

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Written by David Kaib

November 22, 2013 at 9:24 am

Against “The War Against X”

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I’ve been complaining about the framing of the various “War(s) Against X.” So I thought it worth talking a bit about why.

Listening to political discussions, there seem to be wars everywhere. There’s a war on women, a war on voting, a war on the poor. (The right has their wars too, like the war on Christmas, but I assume ones actually related to policy are meant to be taken more seriously.)

To begin with “War on X” rhetoric seems purely defensive.  That is, it is only useful for critiquing Republicans, not for advancing any sort of positive agenda.  In addition, it implies status quo was acceptable .  It suggests the goal is, for example, to stop SNAP cuts, not to ensure food security, or stop new abortion restrictions, not ensure access.  The War Against Voting is about new voting restrictions, but does that mean that only old voting restrictions are acceptable? There’s some implication, maybe, that we are for autonomy, or freedom and equality, or democracy. Implication enough for those who want to find it to hear it, not enough for anyone else to. In reality, I saw innumerable commercials for Terry McAuliffe, and the only thing conveyed was that Ken Cuccinelli was extreme and McAuliffe was in favor of abortion rights in cases of rape and incest.

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Written by David Kaib

November 7, 2013 at 9:50 pm

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The Patriot Act, ‘support’ for public policies and the construction of democratic control

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Not long ago, I argued that how poll questions are often framed, and more important, how they are interpreted in the media, worked to reinforce the status quo, specifically on the issue of mass surveillance.

I’ve since ran across an article (h/t Chris Bowers) that addresses this issue and sheds some important light on my point: Samuel J. Best and Monika L. McDermott, Measuring Opinions vs. Non-Opinions – The Case of the USA Patriot Act (pdf). They investigate whether pollsters are manufacturing opinions on subjects where they don’t exist, in response to the pressure to add public opinion to political debates. In essence, they argue that respondents do not know what the Patriot Act (a complex piece of legislation) does, but use clues from the wording of questions to make up for that ignorance.  So what appears to be actual opinions about the law (which for the record, shows very different levels of support depending on the question wording) is simply an artifact.

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Written by David Kaib

July 9, 2013 at 12:31 pm

We ask so little of Democratic public officials: lowering the barriers to voting

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While Republicans are sprinting to take away voting rights in the wake of Shelby (or doubling down, since they were already aggressively pushing voting barriers), you might think that Democrats would be doing the opposite.  Sadly, not everyone has gotten the message that the Democrats are the party of lowering voting barriers. From the Oregonian:

Legislation aimed at adding hundreds of thousands of registered voters in Oregon failed by a single vote in the state Senate on Sunday.

Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, joined with all 14 Republicans to defeat a bill that would automatically register eligible voters when they received new or updated driver licenses in Oregon.

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Written by David Kaib

July 8, 2013 at 10:52 pm

Blaming Voters or Consumers is a Cop Out

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I’ve argued here before that blaming voters for bad policy or consumers for things like labor conditions is a cop out.  (Here and here for voters, here and here for consumers). The general idea is that social outcomes are not a product of unalloyed aggregated individual choice.  Institutions matter, power matters.  Elites shape the ideas (or people) that can get a serious hearing, and the structure of the choices people get. They work to suppress information and to coopt efforts to challenge them. They make symbolic moves to demobilize those challenges. They act to influence the preferences people hold.  Those who hold positions of power and authority are supposed to do things like follow the law, act morally, represent us, etc.  When they fail to, it’s their fault – ‘why did you let me?’ is a ridiculous response to a charge of dereliction of duty.

There are often two response to this claim that raise an important point, and addressing them helps me clarify my argument.  First is the idea that I’m saying that people have no responsibility to act at all–that I’m essentially leaving them out of the conversation entirely. Second is the idea that saying they aren’t to blame is saying they have no role. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Kaib

July 8, 2013 at 9:05 am

The Fundamental Principle of Popular Sovereignty…Good for One Day Only

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At the end of the Supreme Court’s term last year, I noted that when it came to the Affordable Care Act case, every justice agreed with the principle that the Constitution creates a system of enumerated powers at the federal level. But, when it came to the Arizona’s punitive immigration law, those same nine justices all agreed the federal government was endowed with unenumerated powers, resulting from sovereignty, to regulate immigration.

As I said then, “both positions were consistent with past decisions”:

All this illustrates a point I’ve been trying to make–we have to distinguish between claims about what the Court does, from what it does, but both involve talk.  Both are consequential, but neither are automatic. The key is not to ignore what the Court says or to take it as truth, but rather to focus on in what contexts certain things are taken for granted (and here we’re not just talking about the Court but also the larger legal community) and how it differs from other contexts.

This term brings a similar example, although this time it involves a smaller number of justices.

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Written by David Kaib

June 28, 2013 at 1:22 pm

State are not Sovereign: The Supreme Court and Voting Rights

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[Update: For a sense of legal landscape in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision, read The Way Forward After Shelby County by Joey Fishkin]

The Supreme Court has struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act (pdf), rendering Section 5 inoperable until Congress changes Section 4 (assuming Congress can and there is anything Congress could pass that the Supreme Court would allow, which is unclear).  I addressed the most fundamental conservative objection to the Voting Rights Act after oral arguments – that it is a “racial entitlement”.

Generally speaking, you should just read Justice Ginsburg’s dissent, which righteously shreds Chief Justice Roberts’, and Jessica Mason Pieklo.

I wanted to address something a little more abstract.

Roberts’ opinion repeatedly references ‘state sovereignty’ as an (unenumerated) constitutional principle that supposedly overrides the enumerated power of Congress to enforce the 15th Amendment through appropriate legislation. Let’s leave aside the issue of enumeration, and of the case law (Ginsburg dispatched that handily).  The bigger problem with this is that it’s absurd.

The Constitution makes clear that sovereignty is not vested in governments. It is vested in the people. Neither the states nor the federal government are sovereign. (Yes, don’t miss that second part – and let’s not pretend that a war settles constitutional questions either). From the opening words of the preamble of the original Constitution to it’s final clause, from the beginning to the end of the Bill of Rights, the basic, most fundamental constitutional principle is popular sovereignty. The entire process of ratification, by conventions rather than by state governments, only makes sense if you begin with popular sovereignty.

Literally every other principle we associate with American constitutionalism–separation of powers, federalism, enumerated powers–flows from this basic principle. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Kaib

June 26, 2013 at 9:24 am

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