Sunday, October 31, 2010

Toward Equilibrium We Vote

When the dust has settled on the electioneering frenzy of these final days, 2010, the third “change” election in a row, will better be read as an equilibrium restoring election.

In the Senate, Democrats are about to hand back just over half of their recent wins (5 seats in 2006, and another 8 in 2008) to the Republicans. Most predictions for the number of seats the Republicans will pick up in the House hover around 50 because there are currently 49 Democrats occupying seats in districts that voted for McCain in 2008, and they are about to relinquish these seats. Put another way, Democrats picked up 31 seats in 2006, and another 21 in 2008, and they're about to return just about every one of them back to the Republicans.

This is not coincidence. It is the revealed majesty of the Newtonian system that the Framers of the Constitution set up, and our subliminal internalization of its logic. The Founders weren’t too fond of waves of popular passion, which is why they applied “a new science of politics” and created institutions arrayed alongside each other with the specific principle that "ambition must be made to counteract ambition."

The invisible constitutional hand appears to be working. Now that Barbara Boxer has pulled ahead of Carly Fiorina in California, as has Joe Manchin over John Raese in West Virginia, it is likely that the Democratic firewall will hold just enough to prevent a Republican takeover of the Senate. To take over the Senate, Republicans must take the seats in CO, IL, NV, PA, and WA. Indeed, because Republicans are polling ahead in each of these last 5 races, a nearly perfect partisan equipoise is likely to occur in the Senate. That means the 112th Congress which starts business on January 3, 2011, will likely see a slim Republican majority in the House, and an even slimmer Democratic majority in the Senate.

Another way to think about this election as equilibrium restoring is to observe the net neutral effect of the Tea Party movement. In some places, Tea Party candidates are giving seasoned politicos a run for their money. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul now look like shoos-in for the senatorial seats in Florida and Kentucky, and Sharron Angle is in a statistical dead-heat with Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada - which means, given the enthusiasm gap in favor of Republicans this year, Reid has a mountain to climb in the next two days.

Other Tea Party candidates, however, have turned out to be poor candidates. Principally, they don't know how to handle the media and the rough-and-tumble of electoral politics. Some, like Joe Miller, think it's OK to hand-cuff journalists; others, like Christine O'Donnell failed to realize that telling us "I'm not a witch" does not kill a rumor but sustains it. Others who have been inducted into office, like Scott Brown from Massachusetts, have long since forgotten their patrons. Like all third party movements since time immemorial, the Tea Party movement - now a flick of sunshine on a strange shore - is not likely to last more than one or two more electoral cycles.

All told, the Republicans are going to regain the seats they lost in 2006 and 2008. But, the electoral tsunami would most likely not be enough, as it was in 1994 or 2006, to flip both houses of Congress. And because of the truncated constitutional calendar, this year's wave will stop short of the White House. The greatest prize of them all will stay in Democratic hands (a prize that will become especially valuable now that the Vice-president's tie-breaking vote in the Senate will likely be activated in the months to come.)

A tsunami which converts half a branch is, arguably, no tsunami at all. For this to be a really significant wave that is more than equilibrium restoring, Republicans would need to gain majorities at least as large as the ones Democrats took in 2008 (257/178 in the House and 57/41 in the Senate). That means the Republicans would need to win 118 new seats in the House and 26 in the Senate. So no, a tsunami isn't coming; but equilibrium will be restored.

On November 2, Democrats would not be pleased, and Republicans a tad less than ecstatic. But neither should despair, for Madison had always been right:

"If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."

Monday, October 25, 2010

NPR's firing of Juan Williams

If NPR values public deliberation as the highest virtue of a democratic polity, it did its own ideals a disservice last week when it fired Juan Williams without offering a plausible justification why it did so. On October 20, Williams had uttered these fateful words on the O' Reilly Factor:

"... when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they're identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."

Anxiety and worry make for poor public reasons. Quite often discomfort is a facade for prejudice - an emotion that knows no reasonable defense. Some men feel uncomfortable when women speak up in the corporate board room. Some straight men and women feel uncomfortable that they are serving with gays in the military. And some black men feel uncomfortable when they see people dressed up in Muslim garb on airplanes.

Perhaps there is a case that Juan Williams should have been fired because he allegedly harbored xenophobic sentiments, but that was not the official reason why he was let go. Williams was fired because he articulated his discomfort, not because he felt said discomfort.

According to NPR CEO Vivian Schiller, Williams had repeated fallen short of NPR's standards that their news analysts should "avoid expressing strong personal opinions on controversial subjects in public settings."

Notice that nothing was said about either the legitimacy or illegitimacy of Williams' emotional opinions. And so the emotions, though felt, were not addressed, and a learning moment was missed. NPR was indeed being politically correct, but what has not been noted is that its political correctness played to both sides of the ideological spectrum: in censoring Williams' speech, it played to the Left, but in censoring its real reasons for doing so, it played to the Right. As a result NPR’s action impressed no one.

Discomfort is an emotion. And emotions are just manifestations of reasons not yet expressed. Sometimes, when these reasons are legitimate, so are the emotions that come attached to them. Righteous anger, for example. But other times, when these reasons are illegitimate, then the emotions attached to them are necessarily illegitimate. Xenophobia, for example. But if we don't talk about the reasons behind the emotions - which NPR has elected to do - then a learning moment was missed. No doubt, NPR found it difficult to publicly articulate the claim that feeling anxious in the presence of someone in Muslim garb may be a natural, but not a reasonable reaction, because most Americans probably feel such a reflex.

Ironically, that was exactly what Juan Williams was trying to explore in first admitting his emotions. This is because seconds after his emotional confession, Williams returned to reason when responding to O'Reilly's claim that "Muslims attacked us on 9/11," by saying, "Wait, hold on because if you say, wait, Timothy McVeigh, the Atlanta bomber, these people who are protesting against homosexuality at military funerals, very obnoxious, you don't say first and foremost we've got a problem with Christians. That's crazy." (See full transcript here.)

"I revealed my fears to set up the case for not making rash judgments about people of any faith," Williams wrote in a statement released by Fox News. This was Williams' point, and though he didn't make it more clearly on the O'Reilly Factor, it was clearly his pedagogical intention.

But NPR, in firing Williams, wasted an opportunity to make such a pedagogical statement. It wrapped up its reasons in faux reasons of journalistic standards and objectivity, and ironically, ended up implicitly endorsing the legitimacy of Williams’ first, emotional, reaction. Indeed, I suspect that Juan Williams was fired because his bosses at NPR were, in turn, uncomfortable that he had articulated his own discomfort. And that is the problem. On reflex knee jerk begot another, but no reasonable explanation followed.

One thing we do know though, is that emotions cannot be bottled up. We either feel them or we don't, and Juan Williams apparently feels them when he sees someone dressed up in Muslim garb. What NPR did, in firing him, was send the emotional message that his emotions were illegitimate. But - and here was their mistake - NPR said nothing about either the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the reasons which provoked Williams' particular emotion reaction.

Emotions indicate the salience and intensity of issues, and they should be addressed even and in fact especially when they are based on bad reasons. NPR pushed a discussion of the legitimacy of these emotions under the carpet by firing Juan Williams under the faux reasons of journalistic objectivity and this is why in one fell swoop they lost both a journalist and a teaching moment. If NPR wanted to be politically correct, it might as well have gone all the way.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

How to Arrest a Spiral of Cynicism

For the third election in a row, voters will be throwing incumbents out of office. In 2006, the national wave against Bush and the Bush wars gave Democrats control of both houses of Congress. In 2008, the same wave swept Obama into the White House. In 2010, incumbents are yet again in trouble. At least some of them will be expelled from Washington, and if so the vicious cycle of perpetual personnel turnover and ensuing cynicism in Washington will continue. This is what happens when we become a government of men.

We need only look to the last anti-incumbent election, 2008, for lessons. The Republicans and the Tea Party Movement are running the risk of doing what Barack Obama did in 2008. They are promising change in the campaign, but they do not realize how difficult, by design, change is in Washington. But politicians aren't usually in the habit of thinking about the election after the one right before them.

Should Republicans take over the House in 2011, they will quickly learn, as Obama has learned, that change does not come via elections in American politics. Elections only change the publicly visible personnel at the top; at best they open the door to potential change. The permanent government persists, the political parties survive, the interests endure. Most important, the constitution and its precise method for law-making remains. The political candidate who promises wholesale change makes a promise that cannot usually be delivered in a few years, and s/he runs the risk of becoming the victim of a new political outsider, a Beowulf who will promise to slay Grendel, but who shall soon find out that with Grendel dead, still a dragon remains to be slayed.

Watch the triumphant Republicans who sweep into office in January 2011. They will be filled with as much hubris as Obama was. Fresh from the winds of the campaign trail, they would think the world their oyster. How could they feel otherwise? The applause and rallies which flatter every politician confirm in their own minds that they are kings and celebrities, the invincible crusaders swept in by a tide of popular love.

Then government begins. And boy did the tough job of governing begin in 2009, Obama might now recall. When the tough sail of real governing fails to catch wind the way a campaign slogan did in the year before, a politician stands humbled. Befuddled, to be sure; but ultimately humbled. Worse still, a people sit dismayed. Tricked again, we withdraw into our private lives. Disgusted at government, resentful that we allowed our hopes to go up, furious that we believed the boy who cried wolf thrice. All signs point to this happening again in 2011, especially if there is divided party control of government and the Constitution is activated to do what it does best: check and balance, and thereby ensure gridlock. Then the cycle begins anew. With both sides disillusioned, the question will then become, which side will be less disillusioned to believe in a new anti-incumbent politician who shall cry wolf a fourth time?

This is a vicious circle, and the only way to stop it is for every citizen to take a civic lesson or two in American government. Our Founders believed only in incremental change, in hard choices, in the give-and-take of inter-branch negotiation. The system of checks and balances was biased against seismic chances by design. No one, and certainly no branch monopolizes the truth, and no truth can be told ahead of time (ie. as they are in campaigns) until all branches agree. Despite the message of the get-the-vote-out armies of either party, there are no messiahs, no crusaders in the system the Founders invented. The heroes we have constructed in modern campaigns are just demagogues exploiting the impatience of the frightened or the unemployed. There are no quick and easy solutions, and politicians know it, but they only want our votes for right now, so the truth doesn't matter.

So by all means throw the bums out. But remember that whoever we replace them with will turn out to be bums too if we expect that they will swiftly enact pre-conceived answers consonant with our own, and forget that populist haste is exactly what the constitution was designed to thwart. Politicians come and go, institutions do not. If we understand that our hopes can and will be dashed by men, we might just restore our faith in government.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Turnover at the White House and a Crisis of Confidence

The Obama White House has announced a series of personnel changes in recent weeks, ahead of the November elections. The aim is to push the reset button, but not time it as if the button was plunged at the same time that voters signal their repudiation on election day. But the headline is the same as that of the Carter cabinet reshuffle in 1979: there is a crisis of confidence in the Oval Office.

The process this year has been more gradual but equally insistent. Two weeks ago, White House Senior Advisor David Axelrod announced his plan to leave the White House in early 2011. Last week, Rahm Emmanuel stepped down as Chief of Staff to pursue his political ambitions in the mayorship of Chicago. This week, we learned that National Security Advisor James Jones would be stepping down and replaced by his deputy, Tom Donilon. (Earlier this summer, Robert Gates had already registered his intention to leave in 2011.)

The biggest reshuffle has occurred for the economic advisors. Before year's end, chief economic advisor Lawrence Summers will be out. Meanwhile, White House budget director Peter Orszag and White House Council of Economic Advisers chairwoman Christina Romer have already left the administration. That means three of the top four economic advisors will be out by the end of the year, registering perhaps, the president's general sense that he really needs to up his game on managing the economy and his particular desire to mend fences with (and via a few strategic appointments from) Wall Street.

There is much truth, then, to the Republican taunt that this is an administration in turmoil. This is a lot more change we are seeing compared to the Bush White House two years in. Chief of Staff Andrew Card stayed on for 6 grueling years; Condi Rice stayed on as national security advisor till 2005 before she moved to State; and even the highly unpopular Donald Rumsfeld lasted till 2006 despite constant calls for his resignation.

The contrast between this and the last White House highlights two profiles in presidential confidence. Bush may have been populist in style, but he stuck to his guns whether it came to war in Iraq or his management of the White House. The irony is that while Bush was unapologetic about Iraq and Rumsfeld until at least 2006, Obama is already and practically apologizing about stimulus spending and health-care reform.

Doubt is a good thing in the classroom, but it does not work in a boardroom or in the White House. If Barack Obama does not believe that government spending will stimulate the economy, then it won't. Consider the Keynesian multiplier - the idea that every dollar spent by government becomes income to some consumer who then spends a portion of it. This in return becomes income to another consumer who again spends a portion of it. This process is reiterated several times, and the sum of its effects is called the Keynesian multiplier.

Why hasn't stimulus spending worked, as some argued it did during the Great Depression? Well, maybe Keynes and Hicks were just wrong. Or maybe, according to George Akerlof and Robert Shiller, the missing link this time is the "confidence multiplier" (or the fact that "stimulus spending" have become foul words.) Consumers hold back spending if they are not sure if government spending (ie. deficits) can continue indefinitely, and even if they wanted to spend, banks are withholding credit because they are not sure if government would be in a position to bail them out when creditors default. Yes, confidence is grounded in real-world conditions such as the size of the US public debt. But confidence is also grounded in raw animal spirits. Myths as real or unreal as the dreams of our presidents.

If Obama lacks faith in his advisors, it must be because he lacks faith, ultimately, in himself. His faith in his proposed solutions to our economic and health-care problems has proven to be tentative because he has been quick to back down. Whereas George Bush dug his heels in and kept a poker-face when challenged, Obama volunteers to change his hand.

If leadership is the audacity of hope, and audacity is the capacity to hope against hope, then as Barack Obama buckles under the pressure of less than instantaneous results in his young administration, he may do well to meditate on his own campaign literature. There can only be as much change as that which the president himself ultimately believes in.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Democrats Don't Do Unity Well

The generic Democratic ballot appeared to rebound a little last week, in part because of the Republican Pledge to America, the story of Christine O'Donnell of Delaware spreading in the liberal base, and in part because of anticipation of the One Nation march on the National Mall this weekend. Could it be that Democrats may actually be able to keep their majorities in Congress if this trend continues?

A cold look at history tells us that the odds are still low. One of the iron laws of American politics is that the president's party almost always loses seats in the House in off-year, mid-term elections. Since 1870, there have been 35 mid-term elections and on all but four occasions, the president's party lost seats in the House (the average loss is 34 seats).

On these four occasions, the gains made by the president's party were minor. Republicans and Democrats respectively picked up 9 seats in 1902 and 1934 (perhaps having the last name, Roosevelt, had something to do with it.) In 1998, the Democrats picked up 4 seats in part because of the public backlash against the Clinton impeachment proceedings. In 2002, the Republicans did not lose any seats (or gain any) and bucked the historical trend because the country was rallying behind the president after September 11. (Democrats searching for hope this year should observe that three of these exceptions occurred in year two of a new presidency; 1998 was the only exception to the famous "six-year itch.")

On average, Democrats have proven to more adept at losing seats than Republicans, consistent with the conventional wisdom that the Republican party is a more orderly party and better able to act in unison than Democrats can. Democrats have typically lost 39 seats in the house in mid-term elections (exactly the number the Republicans need to take over to gain majority control this year), while Republicans have lost an average of 32 seats in mid-terms.

The virtue of being a not-so-big-tent party is that there tends to be less internal disagreement within the Republican party than in the Democratic party. It took a Tea Party movement to create dissension within Republican ranks, and yet some would argue that the movement has only rallied and unified the base.

On the Democratic side however, value, demographic, and ideological pluralism has always been a double-edged sword. For here is the telling history of 2009-2011: whereas Republicans are united that Obama was a mistake, Democrats are far from united about what mistakes Obama has made. The liberal faction of the Democratic party, for example, began losing faith in Obama when he compromised on universal health-care, and conservative "blue-dog" Democrats parted ways with their brethren just when the president proposed a middle-way in the form of a government sponsored "public option." This is the perverse outcome of the party boasting more registered members than the Republican party (or for that matter, any other organization in the world.)

If Democrats, unlike Republicans, don't do unity well, then it may well be that they could be better off, or at least no worse off than they are today, should Republicans take one or both Houses of Congress this year. If divided party control of government shall come to pass, it would be because the Democrats were already splintered from the very moment they were blessed with united or single party control of government. Put another way, it may not really matter what happens come November, because Democrats were only united in name in 2009-2011 (and that was possibly what made the infighting more intense).

Indeed, Democrats might even glean a silver lining in losing Congress.  The two most cankerous periods of Democratic party history in recent memory - the Carter presidency, and the first two years of the Clinton presidency - were also the only other times in the last four decades when the Democrats were blessed with the bitter-sweet mandate of single party control of all branches of government.

Democrats appear to have have internalized the pluralist's precept that power corrupts. So they may just be about to shoot themselves in the foot again this November.