Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Posts Tagged ‘elections

Why Won’t You Rubes Get Excited About Cory Booker

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Cory Booker 2011 Shankbone

By David Shankbone (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

[Update below. 8-28-13]

LEAVE CORY BOOKER ALOOOOOOOONE!!!!

Molly Ball is not impressed with “liberal” critics of Cory Booker. (And Paul Waldman agrees with her.)

“Cory Booker is not yet a senator,” Ball warns,”but many on the left have already made up their minds that the onetime Democratic wunderkind is a sellout.” I don’t think anyone thinks Booker is a sellout, which implies that someone was on the side of right and justice and then lost their way. If you want to boil it down to a phrase, ‘bought and paid for’ would be far closed to the truth than ‘sellout’. The attacks are largely a claim that he’s been motivated by ambition and support for the wealthy from the get go.  Progressive criticism of Booker is nothing new. It’s also odd to suggest that people are supposed to wait to criticize someone who’s been on the national stage for a while now, is running for Senate, and who has received effusive praise from many quarters all along. I do admit that I don’t understand the rules of when it’s appropriate to criticize Democratic politicians–not while we’re passing this policy, not before a presidential election, the midterms are coming. Somehow it’s always the wrong time.

If only there was a time when hippie punching was verboten! Even for a day. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Kaib

August 27, 2013 at 8:41 am

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Kaib

July 8, 2013 at 10:52 pm

Top Five Posts That You Did Read: 2012

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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.

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No More Lame Ducks

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yellow-duck-mdLegislators at the state and federal levels are working hard at acting without democratic constraints at the moment.

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.

Written by David Kaib

December 13, 2012 at 10:48 pm

Nate Silver is Very Good at Something that is Not Terribly Important

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[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.

Written by David Kaib

November 1, 2012 at 1:45 pm

An Electoral Mandate is a Claim, Not a Fact

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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.

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