Notes on a Theory…

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Archive for August 2012

This isn’t like Jim Crow, it is Jim Crow: Disenfranchisment in the Twenty-First Century

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One problem with our general ignorance of history is that you can end up thinking developments are different from the past when they aren’t. I was reminded of this while reading Andrew Cohen’s excellent piece on the disenfranchisement in South Carolina.

On Wednesday morning, [Judge] Beeney questioned Andino [a South Carolina election official] about the status of registered voters who come to vote on Election Day without the new form of photo identification required by the new law. Those registered voters may be permitted — the emphasis is on the word “may” because local officials seem to have a great deal of discretion to make that call — to cast a provisional ballot if they state they had a “reasonable impediment” to getting the new identification cards.

Those provisional ballots, in turn, may then be challenged (by anyone) on the basis that the provisional voter didn’t have a “reasonable impediment” after all. The challenges are heard and resolved on the Friday following the election — one day in advance of the “certification” of the election results that occurs on Saturday. Andino testified that South Carolina notifies provisional voters of this hearing by mail between Tuesday’s election and Friday (which doesn’t leave much time for the postman, does it?).

A provisional voter isn’t told that his or her vote has been challenged. The provisional voter is simply told there will be a hearing. So if that voter wants to defend his or her “reasonable impediment” declaration, the voter has to go to the county seat on the Friday following the election to make sure that his or her vote will be counted. Of course, a lack of transportation, public or otherwise, is likely to have been one of the biggest reasons why that voter could not get his or her new identification in the first place.

It gets worse when he quotes the testimony.

This isn’t like Jim Crow. It is Jim Crow. We tend to think about the explicit racial classifications that drove school segregation as the heart of Jim Crow.  The dramatic Brown decision distorted our view of what Jim Crow was really about.  But in reality, the bigger issue, the one that the 14th and 15th Amendments were designed to address, was this: officials given power to act at their discretion, private individuals empowered to act under color of law, claims of fraud by poor African-Americans being used to commit fraud—defrauding people of their rights and cheating to win elections.  Because of the 15th Amendment, states were not allowed to use race explicitly to deny the right to vote. So they used these very tools to achieve the same ends through allegedly race neutral means. Read the whole piece and tell me: does this sound like to effort to protect the ballot box, or is it an assault on it?

[Update] Just so there’s no confusion, here’s my position – the laws of every state are too restrictive when it comes to democratic rights.  Every citizen over the age of 18 (at least) should have the right to vote.  No rule which makes voting more difficult or more costly should be allowed.  There should be a voting holiday, and absentee ballots should be freely available for any reason.  If a state is going to require registration, it should shoulder all of the burden of making sure all eligible voters are signed up and of enforcement.  Individuals and non-government organizations should have no role in enforcement or registering.  There should be paper ballots only.  No one should be allowed to both administer elections and take part in the campaigns they oversee.  The rules should be drastically simplified and clarified (thereby drastically reducing the role of lawyers).  Attempts to convince people to vote on the wrong day, wrong place or the like should be treated as serious crimes.  (And political parties should connect with voters directly which would allow them to communicate without the filter of the media and would make dirty tricks far less effective.  This would also reduce the importance of money and ads in campaigns, and empower voters).  The status quo is unacceptable, even without these new laws.

[Update 2] I left out an important part of the problematic status quo – the exclusion of DC from representation in Congress, as well as all the overseas possessions like Puerto Rico.  None of this can be justified by a real, small d democrat.

Written by David Kaib

August 31, 2012 at 2:08 pm

White Working Class, Progressive Fatalism and the Perils of Polling

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In the Democratic Strategist, Andrew Levinson (pdf) tries to bring some reality to discussion of the white working class, which is generally stereotypes as monolithic and regressive. This is more evidence against the idea that ‘American is a conservative nation’ as a catch-all explanation for politics, and the progressive fatalism that view leads to.

The majority of white working class Americans are simply not firm, deeply committed conservatives. Those who express “strong” support for conservative propositions represent slightly less than 40% of the total. The critical swing group within white working class America is composed of the ambivalent or open-minded.

This is an extremely surprising result since virtually all political commentary about the white working class today is based on the assumption that these voters are generally quite deeply conservative and that conservatives very substantially outnumber liberal/progressives in white working class America.

Part of the difficulty is weaknesses in standard ways of polling, which uses conventional framing (i.e. elite framing) to force people into yes / no answers, and then aggregates across relatively gross categories (white, or white working class) and then overemphasizes slightly differences in means across such categories (i.e. 30% versus 25%?).  Different types of questions yield different types of results, yet only some of these get treated as truth.

When questions about moral issues are not framed as abstract statements of approval or disapproval for traditional “morality” in general but rather as questions about the more practical question of whether government should be made responsible for enforcing conservative morality, only 29% of white working class voters turn out to be conservative “true believers” who strongly agree with the idea. In fact, a significantly larger group of 43% strongly disagrees and holds that the government is actually “getting too involved” in the issue.

But even more significant, nearly a quarter of the respondents are somewhat ambivalent or open-minded on this issue. As the chart below makes dramatically clear, they represent the key swing group whose support can convert either side into a majority.

It’s easy to move unproblematically from the results of polls to interpretations about people, but there is always interpretation involved, framing always matters, and there is always simplification. We (social scientists, especially) prefer the idea that if we just choose the right tools than interpretation is unnecessary.  But that’s simply not true.  And if interpretation isn’t done explicitly and carefully, we end up just using our own biases and stereotypes.

The other issues concerns on what terrain you contest.  But of course, sometimes financing campaigns is in tension with appealing to voters.

As can be seen, on the distinct subset of “populist” issues about corporate profits, power and the role of wall street a majority of white American workers—54%—strongly agree with a liberal/progressive view. In contrast, only 20% strongly agree with the conservative, pro-business perspective.

(All this reminds me of the controversy over the role of African-Americans in the approval of Prop 8.  Classism remains a serious problem.)

Of course, getting this wrong stands in the way of changing things. It’s easy to believe that progress is stymied because a large swath of the population is inherently opposed to your goals. It lets you off the hook.  To believe that people can change places a responsibility on activists to reach out, to do the hard work of organizing.

But it’s not true.  The road ahead may be difficult.  But it’s not impossible.

Written by David Kaib

August 27, 2012 at 11:18 pm

The Difference Between a Bribe and a Campaign Contribution

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I used to think the difference between a bribe and a campaign contribution was that the beneficiaries of the latter make the rules.  If police or judges or administrators made the rules, presumably paying them off would be legal.  But it just occurred to me that’s only part of it.

If you pay a congress member money in exchange for a single favor, that is a bribe.  But if you pay them for access and favorable treatment in general, it’s not a bribe. That is, bribes get too little in return.

At least that’s what Justice Kennedy said.

Written by David Kaib

August 27, 2012 at 1:23 pm

Are the Democrats on Board with the Prosperity, or the Austerity, Agenda?

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[Updated below]

Not long ago I wrote about Prosperity Economics, a report by Hacker and Loewentheil, that seeks to offer a way forward that challenges the dominant approach, called austerity, which involves cutting government spending, supposedly to restore confidence in order to right the ship of the economy.  In point of fact, this actually makes things worse, by reducing aggregate demand (while at the same time producing additional suffering among those who have already suffered the most)–a kind of reverse Keynesianism.  Austerity was used before.  It was pushed by the IMF, the World Bank, and the US government on so-called developing nations, leading them to dismantle their welfare states and sell off public goods and enterprises, which made firms like Citibank even more rich while causing pain and suffering abroad.  (On this, I highly recommend Panic Rules! Everything You Need to Know About the Global Economy, by Robin Hahnel.)

The point of the report isn’t to break new analytical ground, but rather to offer an alternative framework around which progressives can organize to chart a new path.  It has the backing of the labor movement and some civil rights groups.  Hopefully more will sign on.  And thanks to an email I received from Blue America, I’ve learned that it has the support of a number of Democratic candidates as well. (You can see the list here, and donate if you’re so inclined). As of right now, there are ten candidates listed, all for US House races, all non-incumbents.

This should come as no surprise.  The Democrats have embraced austerity for some time.  Here we have a major effort to shift the discourse around addressing our economic problems (and thankfully, many other problems along the way), but the response from Democrats so far has been anemic.

This reminds me of an earlier episode, the Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq.  The Responsible Plan was developed by retired General Paul Eaton and candidate Darcy Burner, and unveiled in March 2008.  It garnered the support of many Democratic candidates that year, and of course Democrats expanded their majorities in both houses in Congress as Barack Obama won the nomination and the presidency in part because of his early opposition to the war. But there was no serious push by Congress to end the war or even take steps towards that.  Ultimately, it was the Iraqis who pressured the Obama Administration to keep the deadline which they have previously pressured the Bush Administration to set.  I thought then, and I think now, that the Responsible Plan was a great idea. But the inability to generate pressure (or to even try) once Democrats took control of the White House poses a pretty serious problem for this approach.   That Democrats stated their support for the goal of ending the war (some of the time) was enough for most people–their own side was to be trusted.  This seems to be how partisanship works, at least at the present time.  But it means that partisans aren’t keeping their own side accountable, with disastrous consequences.

Will this report garner support from members of Congress?  Will activists demand that Democratic incumbents who decry the Ryan budget sign on, and incorporate its message and policies into their campaigns?  This moment, with the election approaching, is the time when incumbents are most open to pressure.  If people wait to make any demands until after the election, in the interests of beating the Republicans at all costs, the moment will pass.

But most of all, let’s not make this just about Democratic officials, or worse still, Obama himself.  Activists, voters, organized interests, commentators and unions — we need to demand better. It’s no good to ask why government or a political party refuses to do things we refuse to mobilize over.  That’s not meant to excuse them.  It’s meant to encourage us to do the main thing that’s actually under our control. Simply put, the answer to the question I posed isn’t set in stone. Nothing in politics is. Every effort to change the world for the better has been told it was impossible, and those critics generally look right as long, but only as long, as we listen.

[Update]: On a related note, David Dayen warns, “The party of  ‘eat your peas’ is not an attractive party,” with bonus video of Corey Robin discussing austerity on Up With Chris.

Discourse on Terrorism and Law as Objects of Analysis (Great Footnotes in History)

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This footnote, from Lisa Stampnitzky’s excellent article Disciplining an Unruly Field: Terrorism Experts and Theories of Scientific/Intellectual Production (pdf), deserves some additional attention in its own right, beyond the specifics of the field or terrorism studies:

As I worked on this project, two questions have been posed to me repeatedly: What is terrorism? And who is a terrorism expert? One set of askers takes these questions as the presumed conclusion to my study: what is terrorism, really? And who are (really) terrorism experts? The second set of interlocutors, meanwhile, takes these questions as necessary preliminaries to the study: how do I assign values to these concepts, so that they might be measured and analyzed? The goal of this project is indeed to investigate terrorism, but not in either of the ways presumed above. Rather, the study takes as its object these very questions, asking how and why they have become meaningful.  To clarify, I do not seek to determine who is “really” an expert; the processes through which this question is contested are, rather, the core of what I observe and try to explain. When I speak of “experts,” I refer to the pool of those treated as experts and those hoping/trying to be treated as experts; with “expertise” being the products, findings, knowledge, statements of these populations. [my emphases]

I can relate.  My dissertation research focused on how reformers sought to achieve reform, and how those seeking reform and those seeking to block it contested the boundaries between law and politics in order to legitimate their own positions and delegitimate the other side’s positions.  But what others often either interpreted me as asking, or presumed I should have been asking, was how such efforts impacted judicial decision-making. This was all the more odd since ultimately the litigation was resolved through settlements, which is the norm.  That framework organized much of our thinking about politics, and it’s difficult to break free of it. (I’ve also argued decision-making as a concept is incoherent and undefended, but I’ll save that for another post.)

I think including a statement about how, if at all, your project has been misunderstood would be a valuable thing in books or articles presenting scholarly work that challenges conventional ways of thinking.

Written by David Kaib

August 22, 2012 at 12:01 pm

Hypocrisy isn’t the important thing here. Ideological failure is.

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The title of this post comes from an excellent diary at Daily Kos, that you should read.  It’s great not just on it’s main point about Ayn Rand accepting Medicare and Social Security, but more generally. Hypocrisy arguments often end up failing to state what you are for.  They can even come off as though you agree with the conservative principle, implying that it’s a good thing. But Scientician shows how to use such moments as a hook to make a larger argument that is rooted in our values. Those values include the idea that everyone deserves security and opportunity, by virtue of being a human being.  Social insurance is designed to ensure our shared fate includes protecting against shared risk, risks that come about simply by living in our world.

That’s the failure here;  Rand needed society’s help.  Rand ran headlong into the very premise of why Medicare was created in the first place:  The for-profit insurance market  is terrible for the elderly and particularly to those already stricken with serious diseases.  It’s not about chortling at Rand as yet another greedy right wing hypocrite, it’s about realizing she implicitly acknowledged the superiority of liberalism with her actions.  This is her endorsement, and as Paul Ryan’s sort gears up to destroy Medicare, we shouldn’t hesitate to remind them that Ayn Rand, whatever her rhetoric and books, ended her life on our side.

To quote Will Ferrell: “That’s how you do it. That’s how you debate.” (Also, check out his blog, Autonomy for All).

Written by David Kaib

August 17, 2012 at 1:26 pm

When is a Cut not a Cut? Framing and Medicare

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Scott Lemieux points to the confusion over “cutting” Medicare, arguing that not all cuts are created equal.

There’s nothing wrong with Medicare cuts per se; indeed, spending less per capita on Medicare should be a progressive goal. It’s a question of what these cuts mean. Evidently, cutting payments to the rentiers Republicans have sought to reward through Medicare Advantage is an unequivocally good thing. And reductions in payments to hospitals that come because there are fewer uninsured patients that hospitals have to treat are also a good thing. And this is what the Medicare cuts Obama supported come from. The Medicare cuts Ryan supports, conversely, come from requiring people to pay much more out of pocket for the same things, preventing them from getting insurance that will get the same things covered, or denying them the ability to get insurance at all.

I agree on the substance, but I think we need to rethink our terminology. Talk of ‘good cuts’ is counterproductive.  You can’t use the same word to denote taking benefits away from people that you use for delivering the exact same benefits for a better price. Those who oppose social insurance but want to shift as much public money into corporate hands as possible (that is, proponents of the Predator State) have an obvious interest in conflating the two. Those who want to protect Social Security and Medicare need to be a lot clearer about the difference.

Personally, I think “cuts” implies “benefits cuts” to most people, so I’d use it that way – always including the word benefits. Talk of saving money shouldn’t be referred to as a cut – and should always mention that it’s delivering the same benefits more cheaply. You should also always mention that Medicare is already providing health care more efficiently than the corporate insurance sector, misleadingly called the private sector.  Talk of Social Security cuts (which as Scott notes, are different, in that it’s always about a cut in benefits), in any form, should make one a social leper.  In essence, if you don’t want something to have a chance of happening, then you don’t want it to be floated without a massive freakout.  The reaction to such suggestions is how people know the boundaries of the possible. But ambiguity makes that more difficult.

Clarity is important both for getting the public engaged on this issue, where they are far more progressive than official Washington. It’s also important for ensuring accountability for those who present themselves as our allies.

Written by David Kaib

August 16, 2012 at 9:14 am

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