Posts Tagged ‘elections’
Here are your top five posts from the last year, based solely on page views. The biggest thing driving traffic – one or two people who have a bigger megaphone than me passing it along. (My thanks to those people). Was there anything else they shared in common? Let’s take a look.
Also, don’t miss Top Five Posts that No One Read: 2012.
The Michigan legislature, still held by Republicans, although their House majority was reduced in the recent election, has been rushing through all manner of ALEC-sponsored legislation, including the No Rights At Work law, harsh abortion restrictions, and an emergency manager law that had just been overturned by initiative. (They are being encouraged by billionaires who know their power is at a high point and voters’ at a low one).
In the meantime, at the federal level, after a campaign where both sides accused the other of wanting to cut Medicare, both sides are scheming to cut Medicare–hopefully in a way that ensures that no one takes the blame (i.e. bipartisanship). This is important because such cuts are deeply unpopular among practically all voters, regardless of party or age. Whipping votes is easier among those members of Congress who were defeated or retiring, many of whom have already lined up lucrative post-Congress employment and may just have some interest in mind other than the public’s.
The time between an election and when the next legislature is seated is perhaps the moment of the lowest ebb of democratic accountability, because of the presence of lame duck members, because the public is exhausted from the non-stop, soul-crushing, circus that is the modern election season, and because it is the time when the possibility of citizens angrily voting against them is furthest off. And many politicians seem hell-bent on making the worst of it.
Obviously, the lame duck sessions aren’t the only culprit here. The Republican Party’s lurch to the right has been a product of organizational politics that serve to insulate it from electoral control, and the vast role of money in politics serves to make legislators in both parties dependent on the funders rather than the people (a problem that has gotten worse in recent decades but is not exactly new either–funders have usually set the bounds within which popular politics can operate, as Thomas Ferguson has argued). There are also almost no independent organizational structures that allow regular people to effectively pressure their representatives. There are plenty of other undemocratic practices and rules we need to target together, as part of a larger democracy agenda.
Sill, what possible purpose does the lame duck session serve? Elite Washington loves the lame duck session, because what ever little impact the public has on policy in normal circumstances, they would prefer to operate with even less popular interference.
But if you actually care about democracy, how to you justify it? The answer is clear. You can’t.
No more lame ducks.
[Update: I follow up on this post here, with a bit more about what I mean by 'policy'.]
There is an enormous brouhaha going on at the moment concerning the innumerate attacks on Nate Silver for relying on mathematics to make probabilistic claims about the state of the election rather than relying on insider knowledge- i.e. asking campaign insiders (who are doubly interested parties, both because they want their side to win and because they need to justify their fees) what they think the state of the race is. The absurdity of this has already been well covered in many places. I don’t have much to add, other than to suggest that when someone is doing something that seems completely unmoored from their supposed purposes the problem might not be in the means chosen but in the validity of the justifications. Telling us that they are having a different conversation about elite concerns would be unspeakable, but this perspective makes the activities of elite pundits sensible in a way that taking them at their word that they are actually trying to describe democratic politics does not. (It’s also worth noting that these same pundits get an enormous amount of undeserved attention from many of the same people who are mocking them now – giving them less attention is the only way to solve that. They will not reform themselves.)
But I want to make a different point. It’s not obvious to me why anyone (outside of political campaigns or those who are using their campaign contributions for purely instrumental ends) should spend much time trying to figure out who is going to win. Our role is supposed to be to make a choice. Journalism, if it was functioning properly, should help us make informed choices, and not just for one race, but all the races top to bottom. I’d go further and suggest it ought to help us hold politicians accountable and push our concerns onto the public agenda, which involves a somewhat more active view of citizenship and democracy than simply making an informed choice between two candidates. Knowing the odds than one candidate will prevail contributes exactly zero to these tasks.
A possible, partial objection might be that while these things are the most important, it’s still essential to know the state of the race. This can be used to mobilize people, who might be more inclined to vote if they think the outcome is close. While this may be true, it also cuts the other way – knowing the likely outcome could lead people not to get involved, and if it’s not close that would presumably be the most rational course. Besides this, that something can be used to some end doesn’t mean it should. You can keep warm by burning books but it would be better to read them and burn wood. What people should use to mobilize voters is policy – policies already enacted, and those proposed. But doing this required actually listening to voters and taking their concerns into account. It requires going beyond the question of support or opposition to a set of elite chosen policies (and frames) and instead tapping into regular people’s top concerns. That sort of election would look very different. But it is possible. as people like Bernie Sanders has shown.
So praise Silver for doing what he does well, and mock those like Joe Scarborough for doing the same thing poorly. But maybe we could turn just a but of our attention on polls and campaign events to supporting active citizenship.
From four decades of intensive research on voting behavior, political scientists know a great deal about the determinants of individual voting choices. We know much less, however, about elections—the institutions in which these individual choices take place. This is a serious shortcoming, for it is elections that link voters to governance. The nature and quality of this linkage has long been a primary concern in the study of politics, especially democratic theorists. To some, the only purpose of elections is the permit voters to choose among political leaders; in short, that voters cannot or should not control the choice among politics in any more direct way. Many others, finding such limited control insufficient for a democracy, seek to show that elections can and should have policy meaning if subsequent government programs are to be seen as legitimate. [snip]
The idea of a mandate…plays a major role in the justification of elections as institutions and in the effort to construct explanations for particular election results. It helps also to reassure citizens that their primary forms of political participation–the vote-had an impact on the policies to which they will be subjected.
These words were written by Marjorie Randon Hershey in 1996. They are, admittedly, a bit disturbing. I’d like to believe things have improved since that time, but I’m not so sure. Since the 1950s (at least) political science has looked to individual formal decisions as the key to understanding politics, and often towards some internal factors, be they interests, attitudes, or ideas, as the causes of those decisions. Votes, court rulings, roll calls–these are the sorts of things political science has focused on. Things which fit comfortably with this sort of approach were foregrounded, things which did not were obscured. While plenty of criticisms of this approach have been voiced, the basic model has remained. A certain idealized view of democratic elections serves the same role for political science does for markets–it is the starting point no matter how much research suggests it is not a very useful way of making sense of the world.
What’s more, there is a presumption–especially in the field of judicial politics–that elected officials were presumptively legitimate, whereas judges, are not, especially when they challenge the decisions of elected officials (i.e. when they exercise judicial review to strike down a law or executive action) . That’s not true on either account. Elected officials may find their legitimacy challenged, and judges often act to strike down laws without controversy. This notion confuses democracy as a normative idea with democracy as an empirical explanation.
The standard move for a political scientist when confronted with the idea that an idea is an essentially contested concept, one that necessarily blends normative and empirical dimensions, one that, as a result, cannot be settled with facts, is to abandon the idea. That which cannot be settled should be abandoned for terms that can be operationalized. But this means avoiding talking about things that political actors take very seriously. As Hershey says:
No matter how difficult it may be to agree on a definition of mandate or to locate one in practice, it remains a powerful concept in political discourse. Politicians claim mandates in order to legitimize bold actions, journalists use the term frequently in interpreting elections, and scholarly studies continue to focus on various aspects of the idea of a mandate. In short, mandates are a central democratic myth–”an unquestioned belief held in common by a group of people that gives events and actions a particular meaning.” As a myth, the idea of a mandate gives meaning to election results and thus has a potentially important effect on the abilities of administration to govern.
I started to think of this excellent piece as I read various discussions of what the meaning of the upcoming presidential election would be from a few left leaning sources. While they disagreed on the answers, all asked the same questions–would there be a mandate, what would its content be? Lost here is that a mandate is not a thing that exists, like a chair or an apple, but a claim. It results from politics, as politics is largely a contest of claims.
So the better question is, what claims will be made in terms of the meaning of the elections, and which ones will be successful? How would the two main parties interpret it, and how would the media treat those claims? For what it’s worth, I think the right largely appreciates this. I doubt they would ask these questions. If Romney were to win, they will claim it’s a mandate for conservative policies. If Obama wins, no matter how large, they will claim it means little. How about the other side? I doubt the Democrats will claim any victory, no matter how large, is a mandate for liberalism. Those who hold the reins of power in the party have long been neoliberals.
As a result, no amount of polling evidence would lead to voters being seen as demanding some liberal outcome. Any such claim would not be seen as ‘reasonable’, but rather ‘political,’ in large part because it would be outside the bounds of what either party would accept.
This is why I get frustrated with repeated efforts to show that Americans don’t support this, or American oppose that, by those who seek to challenge far right positions or bipartisan consensus. It quite simply doesn’t matter. Either activists mobilize those opinions by engaging people to hold them to act, which has to be something more than voting, or such opinions will have no impact. Citing polls won’t change that (although polls can and should inform efforts to mobilize people).
Scholars and activists would do well to understand that democracy isn’t a particularly useful analytic framework, but that it is a powerful myth, that can be mobilized.
Ernesto Cortes, Jr., organizer of the Industrial Areas Foundation network in Texas and the San Antonio-based Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS), has plainly described activists’ necessary relationship to public officials. “It’s unfortunate that fear is the only way to get some politicians to respect your power. They refuse to give you respect. They don’t recognize your dignity. So we have to act in ways to get their attention. In some areas, what we have going is the amount of fear we can generate. We got where we are because people fear and loathe us.”
Randy Shaw, The Activists’ Handbook: A Primer
At Talking Union, Julius Getman explains Why the Battle Between Hotel Workers and Hyatt is Important.
First, it matters to the union movement, which as I’ve noted, is in crisis.
The effort to organize Hyatt is a key element in the monumental task of restoring the private sector labor movement. The hospitality industry is vast and growing. UNITE HERE is a democratic member-centered union. It is seeking to organize the industry one hotel and one employer at a time. It is likely to be successful if Hyatt will agree to a system under which the workers without the pressure of a management campaign decide whether or not they wish union representation.
Given how important a strong labor movement is for combating inequality (as Lawrence Mishel provides further evidence for in Unions, inequality, and faltering middle-class wages), the restoration of private sector unions matters for everyone.
But it matters for electoral politics as well.
The political implications of this are enormous. Immigrant workers generally and Hispanic workers in particular are the sleeping giant of politics in States like Texas and Arizona. As Harry Reid’s union energized, come from behind, victory in Nevada in 2010 demonstrated [which I wrote about here], unions stimulate political involvement and provide a vehicle for it. Many years ago unionized immigrant workers transformed politics in states like New York, New Jersey, and Ohio. They can do the same in Texas. If Texas is changed politically the country will inevitably and permanently be different politically.
It’s long been clear that if unions could successfully penetrate the South, it would open up enormous possibilities for progressive change. And given that labor law change seems largely out of reach (it’s been sought under each Democratic president since LBJ and each time was blocked by a filibuster in the Senate), it’s worth thinking about what can be done under the existing legal regime. This regime, while extremely hostile to union rights, has seen successes.
Getman says “The Hyatt campaign can be a major step in strengthening the alliance between labor and other progressive groups.” I hope so, but the hard work of organizing hasn’t captured the imagination of most progressives. Such outside support could pressure Hyatt to allow workers to decide for themselves whether they want to join a union.
A recent story in the New York Times makes a point that should be obvious but isn’t. Labor is centrally important to the Democrats chances in November, and this is all the more true with the flood of conservative SuperPAC money.
If labor cannot provide the counterpunch to the conservative super PACs, it is unclear whether anyone else can. Nationally, organized labor has long been viewed as having the most effective political operation for Democrats. President Obama’s victory in 2008 here in Ohio — no Republican in modern times has been able to capture the White House without winning the state — was due in no small part to labor’s get-out-the-vote push. People from union households represented 30 percent of all who voted in the state that election.
But Democrats have made it more difficult for labor to help them. (I’d add too that these problems are not just with the president).
Labor is facing another problem: Many union members are frustrated with Mr. Obama’s performance, having hoped he would do more to reduce unemployment, push for stimulus and infrastructure spending and stand up to Congressional Republicans.
Union leaders are urging disillusioned members to back Mr. Obama anyway, telling them that Mr. Romney will lavish tax cuts on the rich, weaken unions and do little to discourage outsourcing. They insist that no one can do as much as unions to block his strategy of running up a large majority among white working-class workers, which many political experts say he needs to win.
I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again. If it’s important enough for unions to use their members’ money not to organize or fight for better contracts, but to ensure that Democrats win elections, if labor support is so central to Democratic electoral prospects, than why is there so little effort by Democrats to deliver for labor, either substantively or even rhetorically? Why are they still pushing corporate trade agreements? Why is federal pay still frozen? What is deficit reduction doing as a continued goal in the middle of the continuing recession? Why did the White House refuse to issue an executive order on high road contracting? Why did the convention so unfriendly to unions? What makes that worth hurting the chances that Obama is re-elected?*
Also worth noting–even if labor was happy with what it was getting from the Democrats, it wouldn’t change the fact that union density has been on a downward trajectory since the 70s and that Democratic control hasn’t changed that.
Even if all you cared about was the president’s reelection, these choices are counterproductive. And given that so many, and here I’m not talking about politicians and pundits, treat reelection as the prime goal, very few will demand a shift. That’s what I find most baffling.
*Note my list of things here are the things that unions and their members care about, not necessarily what others think they should care about. You don’t win political support by giving people stuff that they don’t care the most about.
Back in January, the Center for American Progress put out an issue brief entitled Unions Make Democracy Work Better for the Middle Class. As it shows clearly, declines in rates of in union membership and the share of income held by the middle have moved together since the 1960s. This is just a dramatic illustration of a great deal of evidence that unions produce a stronger middle class and less inequality. The picture is as clear as it is disturbing.
The point of the chart, as with the report as a whole, was to make the case for the value of unions for society as a whole. I’m fully convinced, needless to say, but I want to focus on something else for the moment. Look at the decline in union density and point to where the Democrats held the White House, Congress, or both. Density certainly declined when Republicans, who have made union busting a central tenet of their faith, have held power, but has it gone up when Democrats have? The Clinton years aren’t distinguishable from the Bush years on either end. There is a small uptick around the beginning of Obama’s presidency, but it’s insignificant in the face of the larger trend. At this rate, it won’t be that long before union density is zero. You simply cannot look at this chart and believe that Democratic control of the White House will stand in the way of the end of the union movement or that this is not where we are headed.
This is a fact, and facts, as John Adams said, are stubborn things. Unlike questions about the fate of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), or the impact of Race to the Top (RTTP), or about the relationship between Democrats at the state level and unions, this fact doesn’t leave much room for interpretation. And it strikes me as one of the more important facts for understanding the challenges for our democracy, our economy, the Democratic Party and the union movement. Any argument about strategies for the union movement, and the left, has to take this into account.
Something has to be done. That said, strategies don’t flow automatically from facts, let alone one fact. Figuring that out requires identifying opportunities, assessing strengths, expanding on models that are working, and any number of other things that facts like this cannot inform.
Of course, a lot of people have been talking about this, but I suspect that even more difficult than finding a roadmap will be enacting the sort of institutional change that would bring it about. Announcements about change often are nothing more than wishful thinking, and even determined people may find it impossible to turn words into action. This latter challenge strikes me as the most important piece, and as it stands I’m not sure what the answers are or even what the questions are.
One thing that this sort of institutional change will require is thinking big about what our goals are. The new report Prosperity for America by Jacob Hacker and Nate Loewentheil and endorsed by the AFL-CIO and a number of other progressive organizations is a great start (I’ll have more to say about that later). It remains to be seen what will come of this.
But we better figure it out quick. The clock is ticking on the movement, and our democracy.
The always great Josh Eidelson reports on a janitors’ strike by SEIU members in Texas, not exactly the first place you might think of when you think of unions. Whether they succeed will depend in part of the pressure allies can being to bear on some of the countries most profitable countries, which contract with the companies that employ these janitors and who likely hold all the power here. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to be getting much attention from anyone else. If progressives can’t get mobilized to support working people when they go out on a limb, it’s hard to see how these trends are going to turn around.
Steve Kornacki notes that 19 House Democrats broke with their party on letting the Bush tax break for the richest to expire. As always, the willingness of some Democrats to defect on votes that the White House and congressional leadership are trying to use to draw a contrast with the Republicans on muddies the message and makes mobilizing one’s own side more difficult.
To be fair, plenty of House Democrats from competitive districts did vote for their party’s tax plan. But almost every incumbent on the “no” list who is seeking reelection is in a competitive or potentially competitive race. This speaks to a phenomenon I wrote about a few weeks ago – that even though voters tell pollsters they like the idea of raising taxes on the rich, they won’t necessarily reward leaders who do it (and, in fact, they may actually punish them). A number of vulnerable House Democrats are sensitive to this possibility, and the result is less unity on the Democratic side than on the GOP side.
Follow the link and what do you find? A story about how Republicans Senators in Indiana and Utah have found themselves under assault in Republican Party nomination battles –assaults which are of course funded by the elite conservative machine. This is hardly evidence about what voters in Democratic-held districts want.
Does that mean that voters are itching to reward Democrats for voting for raising taxes on the rich? No. But voters don’t generally reward legislators for how they vote. If legislators and the party make an issue out of something, if they treat their actions are worthy of being rewarded, they might. But it doesn’t happen automatically. Kornacki slips here into the myth of democratic efficiency—the idea that electoral outcomes are a straightforward manifestation of aggregated individual opinions, rather than shaped by institutions and elite strategies. Hacker and Pierson have detailed why this is not the case in particular with the modern Republican Party. Progressives generally reject the ridiculous claim that this is how the economy works—that investor confidence and workers laziness is responsible for the recession rather than the reduction of aggregate demand, coming from the crash of the housing bubble, reductions in government spending, opportunities for profit that don’t create jobs, the feedback loop of unemployment, etc.
Yet we all too often accept it in politics.
Recently, the Culinary Local 226 in Las Vegas made a big splash by announcing that it was not going to make electoral campaigns a priority. Local 226 played a major role in helping secure a victory for candidate Obama in the Democratic primary, as well as the 2008 election and Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s tough 2010 re-election campaign. The union didn’t point to the disappointment, widely shared in the union movement, with what Democrats at the national level have delivered for labor, but rather to the pressing needs of the local and its members at this moment.
With all their contracts with local unionized casinos expired and a bitter organizing fight underway with the non-union Station Casinos chain, Taylor said that the group is at capacity.
“We really divide between two things, which[are] our contracts and Stations,” Taylor told National Journal. “I’ve told everybody if we don’t have those settled, or some of them settled, we’re not going to lie to you and tell you we’re going to be involved politically.”
Taylor isn’t bashful about wanting some help from the same Democratic politicians the union has helped elect over the years. But such assistance has not been forthcoming. “Sometimes the Democrats wonder why workers don’t rally around them. It’s because they really don’t rally around workers in time of need,” he said. [my italics]
David Dayen explains why this is such a big deal.
Very few unions could pull off this kind of power play. But the Culinary Union in Nevada, the virtual home of the hospitality industry, can. They have a large membership base of cooks and housekeepers and hotel personnel in the main population centers of the state. And they have the ability to mobilize those voters, particularly the Latino voters who make up 45% of their membership, as we saw in the re-election of Harry Reid in 2010. As I noted, there are key downballot races in Nevada, in addition to the Presidential contest. Shelley Berkley and Dean Heller are in a neck-and-neck race for the US Senate. And at least one and possibly two House seats are in play.
Erik Loomis, a well-informed and generally sympathetic commentator on labor issues, questions the announced reason suggesting “the more likely reason is because Democrats rely on labor to win elections and then do very little to press labor’s agenda.” It’s not clear why Erik thinks this, and while I agree it’s probably a part of it, it seems unlikely Local 226 would be making this move solely for that reason, or more to the point, that they would be able to defend the choice on this basis alone. At the very least, I think it’s important to take seriously the reasons being offered, even if in the end you reject them as a possible explanation (which I don’t).
Stories about this development have generally been framed around two questions. First, is this just a bluff? Implicitly the answer is often yes given the stakes of the election (despite the fact that these stakes are themselves contested). And second, is this the right strategic move for the union?
Don’t like it? Then pressure Dems and Station Casinos.
From the article linked above:
Taylor said he wants to wrap up existing contract negotiations before the elections and, more ambitiously, make inroads in a years-long fight to unionize Station Casinos, itself a powerful player in Nevada politics. Asked if he has sought help from Reid in that fight, Taylor paused, blinked twice and said, “You just have to follow the money.”
Data from the Center for Responsive Politics show that PACs and people tied to Station Casinos have been among the top 10 donors to Reid in every election cycle since 2002, with more than $74,000 given this cycle alone. Station has been a major contributor to both sides of the political aisle.
Reid failed (and continues to fail) to help by supporting them – that’s the complaint, as the quote above clearly shows. That Reid took money from Station Casinos is offered as an explanation for his inaction, not the grievance.
As Julius Getman explains, HERE (the predecessor union to UNITE HERE) determined in the late 1980s that the NLRB process was too rigged against unions to be worth pursuing. Instead, they sought to find ways around it—specifically, the comprehensive campaign. Unions seek to pressure employers to agree to a card check process and to ensure neutrality in order to produce a fair process. Numerous pressure points can be pursued, but one key one is political pressure—including building alliances with key politicos who in turn can pressure employers. Local 226 was the testing ground for this approach, and it has seen significant growth outside of the NLRB process at a time when union density has been declining around the country. (More background from Dorothee Benz on all this here).
Getting politicians to put pressure on corporations to bargain in good faith, remain neutral, etc., is standard operating procedure in a comprehensive campaign. If they won the campaign, it would energize their workers and free up resources. (I suspect it would do most of these things even if they got the help and it didn’t end the campaign).
It is certainly in the Democrats interests to do this. So it strikes me that they ought to.
So why is no one talking about that? Why are working people supposed to sacrifice so much and top-level officials so little? Even if you think they are making the wrong choice (and hopefully you would take some time to learn about what has going on in Las Vegas before attacking someone you want to be your ally) why not also ask something of politicians and party officials who supposedly represent us?
I’ll have some thoughts about possible answers to these questions and what it means for our politics more generally later.
*I’m leaving aside other questions like the relative importance of electoral politics or working within the Democratic Party versus third parties. My argument here assumes that Democrats winning elections is the central goal. Let’s leave those other questions for another time.
Mike Elk notes that the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers (AWPPW) will picket an Obama fundraiser over the Administration’s push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade agreement.
“I was at a meeting recently with the Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO, Liz Shuler. People within the labor movement are not at all happy with Obama on the trade agreements,” says [AWPPW Vice President Greg] Pallesen. “They feel the election is so close that if they beat him up on it, it will get Romney elected. That may very well be. However, as a union representing its members who are fed up with these attacks, we got to represent our members. Our members have made it clear they are sick and tired of the trade agreements. It’s our number one job killer.”
Again, labor is supposed to change but not public officials. The rationale for so-called “free trade agreements” used to be that they would provide economic benefits. Now you often see people claim that they won’t actually cost jobs, which isn’t much an endorsement. More often, the claim is that low cost goods make up for lost jobs, but in the midst of the Great Recession and close to a decade of wage stagnation this is highly questionable. But even if AWPPW were inclined to keep quiet, it would be more difficult for them to go to their members and try to mobilize them to support Obama and the Democrats come election time.
If union help is important, why make it harder to provide?