Archive for the 'Politics' Category

Start with the state houses.

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

Yesterday I opined that, no, Americans—and American progressives—are not “doomed” by the incoming Administration. We’re certainly not helped, but it’s not the end.

Where, then, do we begin? I suggest that, while remaining vigilant and activist about what’s happening in Washington, progressives would do well to focus on local and state races.

This is hardly original advice on my part, and it’s hardly new. Here in Texas, Democrats have gone 0-for-the-21st-century in capturing any of the statewide electoral seats. (Y’all please correct me if I’ve overlooked some stray winner in there.) And it hasn’t been any better in the Texas Lege.

That trend applies nationwide, as Amber Phillips explains in this informative Washington Post article written just after the 2016 general election:

These 3 maps show just how dominant Republicans are in America after Tuesday

Note that the G.O.P. has this dominant position—such that about 80% of the country’s population lives in states whose governments are controlled by Republicans—even though Democrats win just as many votes, or even more votes, in the aggregate. (Exhibit A: Hillary Clinton’s large but ultimately irrelevant margin in the popular vote.)

So, what to do? Put more effort and money into the grind-it-out work that needs to happen at the grassroots level. Support and cultivate local candidates; take back seats.

It’s a long road, especially because movement conservatives have been focused on these efforts for decades (see the Phillips article for more details), and their entrenched position puts them in control for redistricting that benefits them after the 2020 Census. (The same thing happened after the last two rounds of the Census, too, which helps explain the bigger problem.)

But what else are we going to do—give up? No.

Long road. Lots of work. But worth it.


Monday, January 16th, 2017

The other day I had a discussion with a Twitter acquaintance who’s of the opinion that the United States—and especially any progressive agenda within it—is doomed.

Though I wasn’t able to shake his pessimism, his take on this is wrong, for at least two reasons:

  1. Mordor, this ain’t. (Compare current conditions to the picture above.) Not to make light of the political situation or the cruel steps being taken by the President-Elect and the majority in Congress, and not being any kind of a Pollyanna, but: have some perspective.
  2. Even if it were Mordor . . . that’s not the way to think about it, for important psychological reasons.

Cynicism tends to breed doubt and inaction. After all, if we really are doomed, then why even try?

Realism tinged with an optimistic openness to good things that might happen if we try—which is another way of invoking the Stockdale Paradox—is the right approach.

Yes, things are bad. Bad enough that we can’t sit back and wait for them to get better, or take for granted even those cherished institutions and norms that seemed the most entrenched up to now. (Can you even imagine Eisenhower, Reagan, or Obama shouting down a reporter at a press conference? It’s sickening.)

But also . . . there are things we can do. There are. There ARE.

My Twitter interlocutor said something about holding out for Michelle in 2020, by which I take it to mean that he hopes Michelle Obama will run for the Democratic nomination then. As much as I respect Mrs. Obama, my friend’s wish should hardly be the centerpiece of anyone’s approach, because it relies on a singular political savior (long odds on that) and puts off the next inflection point for action by four years.

It seems fitting to be thinking about this on the day we choose to commemorate Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement. There’s a reason he titled his 1963 book Why We Can’t Wait.

And remember, those of you who are fantasy buffs, that it was within the bowels of Mt. Doom itself that Frodo destroyed the One Ring.

If we have reached Mordor, so be it. Let’s continue the work.

A quick note on Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution.

Sunday, February 14th, 2016


Short Version

If you don’t want Obama’s nominee to fill Scalia’s seat, that’s fine — but focus on the Senate confirmation process instead of subscribing to the nonsense that Obama shouldn’t make any appointment in the first place. He actually has to make an appointment as part of his explicit job duties.

Longer Version

I seldom talk about politics here, but sometimes things are so illogical— independent of which party or politician they come from — that I feel the need to set down my thoughts.

There’s this absurd notion going around that President Obama should not nominate someone to fill the Supreme Court seat of the late Justice Scalia. It’s absurd because Obama is explicitly obligated to nominate a successor by Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution, which states:

[The President] shall nominate, and, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

It says “shall.” Obama actually must make an appointment . . . because the Constitution commands him to.

Now, you may not like whoever he nominates. That’s cool. The Senate may not approve his first nominee, or his second nominee, or any nominee. That’s also cool, in the sense that the Senate has that prerogative. (It wouldn’t be so cool from the standpoint of gumming up the works of the Supreme Court . . . but it’s still the Senate’s prerogative.)

But Obama — who still, for whatever it’s worth, has one-ninth of his Presidency still to serve — actually must make an appointment, or he’s not fulfilling the explicit duties laid out for him by the Constitution.

Some Twitter-driven thoughts on “white privilege”

Friday, August 28th, 2015

This morning I struck up a conversation with @GRIMACHU on the topic of “white privilege” — a term he rejects as nonsensical. I composed my reply in the form of a series of tweets, but he and I agreed in a friendly exchange that it would be simpler to itemize them here.

(I’ve retained the original numbering of my tweets for ease of reference, even though I posted only the first 6 of them on Twitter.)

1. IMO, @GRIMACHU, your ire over “privilege” is misplaced. But you’ve obviously given it much thought, so I’ll lay out my logic in detail.

2. Others are free to follow along, but I’ll frame the rest of these (30+) as replies to @GRIMACHU to keep from cluttering streams.

3. I also acknowledge that Twitter is cramped for this kind of discussion. We can change venue, if you want.

4. And I get it that we may simply disagree. If we do, please tell me where the disagreement arises. I genuinely want to know.

5. Okay, here goes. Let’s keep in mind a short vers. of that OED defn: “A special advantage available only to a particular group.”

6. The “Basic, expected, societal standard of treatment” you cite definitely SHOULD be equally available to all. Totally agree.

7. Alas, what do we observe IRL? That standard isn’t equally available, in this context, because racism still exists in society.

8. Now, COULD a POC be biased against white people? Of course. But is that really what we’re talking about when we say “racism”?

9. I don’t mean some abstract, philosophical definition of “racism” that applies it equally to any race. I mean in real life.

10. In the US, Europe, and many other parts of the world, whites have traditionally held most power, influence, and wealth.

11. And we’re not only talking about long ago. Whites remain the overwhelming majority of legislators, CEOs, the wealthy, etc.

12. This doesn’t mean that all whites are racist, or that things are as bad as they used to be. Not at all.

13. But wouldn’t you agree that POC continue to suffer from racial bias far more often & far more deeply than whites do?

14. If you don’t agree, what evidence would you cite that whites have it anywhere nearly as bad as POC in terms of racism?

15. There’s tons of evidence that IRL the basic standard of decent treatment is disproportionately afforded to whites.

16. Or, more precisely, that when the standard is denied on a racial basis, it’s disproportionately denied to POC.

17. This is no mystery; it’s grounded in mountains of research in history, psychology, etc. We know where it comes from.

18. So, unfortunately, the basic standard of treatment is not equally available to everyone. And the pattern isn’t random.

19. I’m a straight white native-born male. Through no action of my own, I experience nearly zero racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.

20. To use your term (which I have no problem with), I’m not “underprivileged” in any of those dimensions.

21. So how could we label MY experience? For instance, does it work to describe it as neutral?

22. Alas, it’s not really neutral, because it’s way better than what a lot of people get.

23. One way to describe it would be to say that I benefit from “A special advantage available only to a particular group.”

24. Philosophically, sure, it SHOULDN’T be an advantage. It SHOULD be the standard everyone enjoys. But IRL it’s not.

25. And in the abstract, sure, I COULD suffer from anti-white bias. But IRL: nearly zero instances, & none w/power behind them.

26. None of this means I did anything wrong. In fact I couldn’t have done anything to change my race, where I was born, etc.

27. Rather, it’s an observation that I benefit from a sort of exemption-from-systemic-B.S. that POC routinely don’t receive.

28. So my question for you is: What term SHOULD we use for that unearned, unwanted exemption-from-systemic-bullshit?

29. “Racism” doesn’t work, because racism is not what I’M experiencing.

30. I experience a 2nd-order effect CAUSED by societal racism, but I don’t suffer b/c of either racism or this 2nd-order effect.

31. (By the way, this is why I can’t agree with your rephrasing of my earlier question, or that I engaged in tautology.)

32. In fact I BENEFIT from this 2nd-order effect, relatively speaking – even though I didn’t ask for it or want it.

33. So what shall we call that benefit? “White exemption”? “Pro-white bias”? “Status quo bias”? What would you suggest? [End.]

Climate change and culture wars.

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

I’ve had the quote below sitting around for a while now — you’ll note that the Salon item it’s from is dated May 2008 — because I didn’t quite know what to do with it.

So, what I’m going to do is (a) share it with you, (b) ask you to think generally about how it relates to your political views and the ways that you form them, and (c) await any comments you’d care to make.

Here’s the quote:

“Peak oil and climate change are fronts in the culture wars . . . Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. Sensible people could agree that well-regulated markets incorporating the appropriate prices for environmental pollution and energy consumption will provide powerful incentives to allow humanity to avoid devastating energy shocks and the complete despoliation of the planet. We don’t have to consign ourselves to totalitarian dichotomies in which vegan organic gardeners stand on one side, threatening to employ the power of the state to deny everyone else their right to eat bloody porterhouse steaks; while across the trenches stand ranks of right-to-keep-and-bear-arms, give-me-my-SUV-and-suburban-gated-community-or-give-me-death Ayn-Rand disciples, draped in the furs of newly extinct mammal species, for whom a lifetime in hell would be infinitely preferable to a government-mandated solar power water heater.”


American politics these days is typically framed in terms far more oppositional than we need if we ever want to come to constructive solutions to our problems.

Are you falling victim to these false dichotomies? Are you engaged in a culture war that you didn’t realize you were signing on for? Do you wear the political suit of clothes that someone else picked out for you, such that if you support Policy A you must support Policy B and oppose Policies C and D?

If so, I ask you to review your beliefs. Test them. Don’t be anyone’s chump, which in my experience is far more likely when you’re moving in lockstep with anything.

Who’s the best U.S. president since World War II?

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

I nominate Dwight Eisenhower.

This came up yesterday in a conversation at work that spilled over onto Twitter. One big epistemological question that underlies the main question is obvious: What do we mean by “best”?

E.g., some people might look back and say that the answer to the question is LBJ, citing his work to enshrine universal civil rights into U.S. law. Others might say, though, that Johnson’s handling of Vietnam disqualifies him from vying for the title of “best.” Similar arguments could be made against Nixon (Vietnam and Watergate), Reagan (ginormous budget deficits), and so on.

Anyway, feel free to answer these two questions in the comments:

  • Who’s the best U.S. president since World War II?
  • What do you mean by “best”?

Expect a follow-up post or two in this vein . . .


Related posts:


Commonplace: Hand.

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

That community is already in the process of dissolution where each man begins to eye his neighbor as a possible enemy; where nonconformity with the accepted creed, political as well as religious, is a mark of disaffection; where denunciation, without specification or backing, takes the place of evidence; where orthodoxy chokes freedom of dissent; where faith in the eventual supremacy of reason has become so timid that we dare not enter our convictions in the open lists, to win or lose.

Learned Hand

What issues could we all agree on?

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

I’m thinking about this after reading my friend John Spong’s excellent Texas Monthly cover feature on Ted Nugent. (Access available only to T.M. subscribers — sorry.) Nugent, you may know, is a huge gun rights advocate, and the article talks about the debates he gets into with gun control activists.

Anyway, gun control is not the type of issue I’m looking for here, because it’s too contentious. The same goes for abortion and immigration. What I’m looking for are issues that we all could come together on, but haven’t yet for whatever reason.

A possible example: capital punishment.

Obviously, the death penalty is pretty contentious, too, but I think that’s partly because of the way it’s argued. Here’s an incomplete sketch of some of the unconvincing arguments:

  • Some opponents of the death penalty have tried to cast it as cruel and unusual punishment, even though (a) modern methods aren’t cruel — or at least aren’t that cruel, and (b) the Constitution specifically mentions “capital” crimes, so the concept of the death penalty is hardly unusual.
  • Opponents of the death penalty have often said that the death penalty ought to be beneath us as an advanced society. This contention is often paired with the observation that the U.S. is one of the very few rich countries in the world that carries out executions, yet our crime rate isn’t better than many countries that have gone decades and decades without the death penalty. But these arguments are pretty hollow to the opposition, who simply don’t agree that the death penalty is debased, and don’t care that the U.S. is an outlier in this area.
  • Meanwhile, advocates for the death penalty talk about it as a deterrent, even though that utility is dubious at best. (We execute a lot of criminals compared to many other countries, but it doesn’t carve down the rate of murders.)
  • Advocates for the death penalty sometimes talk about it as giving closure to the families of victims. I support victims of crime wholeheartedly, but there may be other, better ways of gaining closure that don’t involve retributive justice, and that don’t prize the wishes of victims and their famiilies above the greater good of the society as a whole.

I’m well aware that these items, by themselves, are wide open to contention, but that’s what I’m getting at: this is where the the argument often stalls out, precisely because these points are so wide open to contention.

So here’s the much simpler line of argument I would focus on instead to advocate the abandonment of the death penalty:

  1. It’s super-expensive. Death rows are notoriously expensive, as taxpayers end up spending tons of money on rounds of appeals. No death sentences = less arguing in the courts and less expense to society.
  2. We occasionally execute the wrong people. It may be rare, but it’s certainly true that our criminal justice system has executed innocent men in the past. Whatever benefits may accrue to death sentences, it’s not worth the risk of executing the wrong person, surely?

Note that this argument doesn’t require people to agree on the moral standing of capital punishment. It doesn’t require comparisons to other countries. It doesn’t even require us to have a debate about the possible deterrent effects of capital punishment. It simply points out that we’re spending tons and tons of money on society’s worst members, and even after all that we sometimes execute innocent people, which just stinks. Why not switch to life-without-parole instead, save the money, and not have to waste time arguing about it anymore?

I don’t expect this to convince activists on one side or the other of this particular issue. (So if you are one, please spare me your ire in the comments.) But it might convince a broad range of people across the political spectrum.

What do you think? And what other issues might be framed this way?


(Picture by Thomas Hawk, used under a Creative Commons Noncommercial license.)

Take off that suit — it doesn’t fit you.

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

One of the grand problems of political discourse in the United States is that we are often expected to put on an entire suit of clothes at once — to buy into an entire ideology, with all its interlocking parts. This leads to false dichotomies, shoddy thinking, and the erosion of our Republic. I hope you’ll reject that way of thinking.

I have a friend who frames this in terms of the death penalty. He’s a political freethinker, but he’s found that if he learns a person’s stance on capital punishment, he can often extrapolate many of their other political views. In many cases, the first “suit of clothes” looks like this:

  • pro-capital punishment
  • pro-gun rights
  • pro-life
  • pro-Iraq invasion
  • pro-Bush
  • anti-Obama
  • anti-tax
  • anti-regulation
  • “conservative”
  • etc.

The other suit of clothes is the negative image of the first:

  • anti-capital punishment
  • pro-gun control
  • pro-choice
  • anti-Iraq invasion
  • anti-Bush
  • pro-Obama
  • pro-tax (or tolerant of higher taxes, especially on the rich)
  • pro-regulation
  • “liberal”
  • etc.

Here’s the big problem: if you wear one of these suits of clothes without thinking it through, you end up holding ridiculous positions. For now, just one example:

  • Most climatologists in the world, regardless of nationality or politics, are convinced on the basis of strong evidence that global warming is a real, current problem that requires strong human intervention. If they’re right — or even likely right — how will it benefit us to resist them on ideological grounds?

We have big problems ahead of us: climate, economy, foreign policy, et cetera. And too many of our approaches to these problems have been driven by ideology, not independent thought.

Please buck that trend.


(Photo by John Keogh, used under a CC-NC license.)

What I hope the next President will bring us: A sober foreign policy.

Thursday, May 22nd, 2008

The great investor Warren Buffett loves to play bridge. Since he’s an avid fan of the game — and, no doubt, since he’s Warren Buffett — he’s gotten to play with some of the luminaries of the bridge world. He has talked about how the very best bridge players virtually never make a mistake: they may lose a hand because of the cards they are dealt, but they don’t lose by making bad plays trick by trick.

With hopes of setting aside all partisan differences, I would note that the United States has undergone a period of intensely ideology-driven foreign policy during this decade. As it happens, the ideology in question has been (more or less) neo-conservative, and it has centered on Iraq and the “War on Terror.” In earlier generations, ideologically driven foreign policy has sometimes come from the Democrats rather than the Republicans (for example in the cases of Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter), and it has centered on other themes and other areas of the world.

There’s no need for a long essay belaboring this point, but what the United States needs in foreign policy, probably for a good twenty years to come, is a notable lack of ideology. Sure, we’ll always stump for democracy and free markets in general, and well we should. We ought to speak up likewise in favor of human rights. But we can’t afford — not even us, not even with our great resources — to fight ideological wars abroad, or cultural wars at home, if we are to retain our influence on the world, or if we are to regain the international standing that we have lost in recent years.

Saber-rattling won’t get us where we need to go. Wilfully simplistic misreadings of the world’s politics, ditto. In some cases, we may have to hold our noses as we make the smart play.

But for a couple of decades at least, we need a bipartisan commitment to making the smart play — like a master bridge player, like Warren Buffett choosing his investments — rather than the play that makes us feel vindicated in the moment, or that scratches an ideological itch.