Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Jill Stein: The Ultimate Ideological Compromise

Last week, I explored the issue of whether leftists "should" vote for Jill Stein. Many people on the left frame the choice as being between ideological purity -- the candidate whose positions are closer to their ideal candidate -- and realism about who can get elected. My argument was that (a) part of the preference calculation for picking one candidate over another should include the realistic effects of that choice (here, making it more likely Trump comes into office), and (b) while one can decide that said effects are less important than avoiding the moral compromise of voting Clinton, that decision is substantively awful and is condemnation-worthy in itself.

But while I still agree with that analysis, I also think it gives Stein way too much credit, in that it accepts the basic suggestion that Stein is a non-compromised, purely progressive choice hampered only by the fact that she stands no chance of victory.* In reality, many of Stein's positions range from the objectively terrible to the merely incoherent. The "realism" argument isn't just about political realism but policy realism -- Jill Stein swaps out actual progressive reforms in favor of vague fulminations about how the "system" is all that stands between us and our hearts' desires. It's the revenge of the Green Lantern Theory of Politics. To the extent that progressives have an ideological commitment to, say, basic precepts of science, it is not an uncompromised position to punch the ballot for a candidate who plays footsie with anti-Vaxxers and rejects the scientific consensus on GMOs.

To take one example near to my heart, Jill Stein's energy platform calls for moving completely to clean power sources by 2030. That sounds great; I'm all for aggressive efforts to promote clean power. But in this call she excludes nuclear power and (if we take the Green Party platform seriously) hydroelectric as well, without which the move to clean power is essentially impossible (unlike, say, wind or solar, nuclear power and hydroelectric power are "dispatchable" sources of power -- they can run at any time as needed, as opposed to only when the sun shines or the wind blows. This attribute is absolutely essential for grid stability, which is why we couldn't just build a lot more solar plants to replace our fossil fuel generators). This isn't a more ideologically pure energy package that suffers from being a political non-starter; it's an ideologically blinkered energy package that suffers from being utterly unmoored from any understanding of how the electricity grid works, much less how to leverage it in favor of our environmental goals.

To put it another way, the choice isn't between a flawed progressive who can get elected and a great progressive who can't. It's between a flawed progressive who can get elected and an even more flawed progressive who can't. Voting for Jill Stein is a massive ideological compromise for anyone who thinks of themselves progressive. And one gets the sense that it only feels like a "pure" choice because Stein stands no chance of being elected; the vote isn't even "for Stein" as much as it is "against the system."

And that logic hammers home another reality: The basis of Jill Stein's appeal is more or less the same as that which pulls people to Donald Trump. Both are seeking to harness an inchoate anti-establishmentarian rage that need not (and in many ways prefers not) tie itself to the world of facts and data. Everything from workable policy agendas to a basic consonance with the factual world can be dismissed as a sort of establishment-gotcha. It is to the great credit of the American left that Stein looks like she'll only muster support from the left-most 2% of the electorate or so, while Trump will capture the votes of at least the right-most 46%.

I doubt that most left-wingers are going to end up voting for Jill Stein. And it strikes me as equally unlikely that they will be the ones to tilt the election over to Donald Trump (though the spectre of Nader continues to linger). But regardless of whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump wins come November, if you're a Jill Stein supporter you don't get the consolation prize of knowing you kept your ideological purity intact. You compromised your integrity just as much as anyone else did.

* Some might object and argue that Stein, while not perfect, is on net a better progressive than Hillary Clinton. I'm not sure I'd even cede that, but I'll also stand my ground on the argument as presented. If voting Jill Stein is conceded to be an ideological compromise, it isn't clear how the argument against voting for Hillary Clinton on the grounds that one is tired of "compromising" sustains itself. At most it could be an argument of degree -- I'll concede up to Jill Stein, but not further -- but that's rarely how it is presented and lacks quite a bit of the self-righteous purity that normally drives the claim.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Why Must All the Candidates Be So Fucking Neoliberal?

[To the tune of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”]

Clinton voted for the war
And Timothy Kaine is such a bore.
Cory Booker loves Wall Street
And VP Warren spells defeat.
None of them’s acceptable
For my precious vote electoral
Why must all the candidates be so fucking neoliberal?

I think we’ve had enough of the White House
being a Whitehouse
And Tom Perez as Labor’s top
Didn’t restore the union shop
Tom Vilsack is in the sack for
Big Agricultural
Why must all the candidates be so fucking neoliberal?

O’Malley’s a coastal technocrat
Another pawn of the fat cats
Schumer opposed the Iran Deal.
Castro’s young—is he for real?
Of Biden I’ve had my fill
Since he wrote the ’94 Crime Bill
Why must all the candidates be so fucking neoliberal?
Cummings seemed to think
Black Lives Mattered more than TPP
And Becarra didn’t swear
I’d go to Yale tuition-free.
As Congressmen I think they’re swell
But if they’re picked it’s “betrayal!”
Why must all the candidates be so fucking neoliberal?

I was for Bernie until I learned he’d
Endorsed the dreaded Hillary
Now I see that he’s sold out
Of that there is no doubt.
Could the problem be with me?
My vain demands of purity?


Why must all the candidates be so fucking neoliberal!

Monday, July 25, 2016

Who We Thought They Were

The post convention bump has pushed Donald Trump into the lead in the presidential race. While it's worth taking that news with a grain of salt -- polls bounce around tremendously around convention time, before settling back into place -- it is also a fair moment to think a bit about what a Trump victory would tell us about America.

The Republican primary caused several GOP loyalists to admit that Trump's victory essentially "proves that every bad thing Democrats have ever said about GOP is basically true." Democrats had long alleged that the core of the Republican Party's base was built on simmering white resentment, bigotry, xenophobia, intolerance, and a thirst to get at a diverse range of "thems" who didn't count as real Americans (gays, religious minorities, people of color, women ... the list goes on). Republican elites had viewed this charge as basically a political smear, right up until the monster that they had created through baiting the Tea Party and playing birther-curious broke free of their constraints and ran away the nomination.

But a primary is just a primary. What happens if Trump wins the whole thing? Well, in that case it may well "prove every bad thing leftists have ever said about America is basically true." The left narrative about America, after all, is precisely that the organizing feature of American politics is racism and white supremacy, and that we're deluding ourselves if we think that it did anything but go into a minor hibernation for the last fifty years or so. What does it say about our national trajectory if we can easily turn back George Wallace in 1968 but can't keep Donald Trump out of office in 2016? What retort would we have to the simple statement that racism and xenophobia, as electoral rallying cries, really are what gets folks to "stomp the floor"?

Yet we wouldn't only be learning something about the right, or even America as a whole. If Trump -- a historically bad candidate, with historically low approvals, open in his bigotry and contempt for large swaths of the American public -- wins the election, it would also "prove every bad thing centrists have ever said about the left is basically true." What's been the core of the center's charge? That the left isn't politically serious, that it prefers its own sanctimony to the much scarier work of getting things done, that it is more seduced by the thought of rebellion than the staid and square work of slowly mining in the hard rock. If the left -- too besot with its own "purity" or inchoate resentment against "the establishment" -- can't coalesce to beat back this candidate, it would verify once again its complete and utter impotence as a meaningful force for improving the nation or the world. We have, after all, gone through this dance time and again: Walking away from universal health care in the Nixon administration because it wasn't single-payer and then waiting 40 years to claw our way back to the same basic deal; letting the Freedom of Choice Act fall to interleft squabbling in the 1990s and never getting it near passage since; watching the Occupy movement put economic justice on the political agenda for the first time in a generation and then seeing it promptly collapses in on itself because of an ingrained aversion to sullying itself with actual making a political demand (and let's not even get started on Ralph Nader in 2000). And now we're set to go through it all again.

Finally, we can also draw one lesson if Clinton wins. It would "prove" (not that we'd need proof) "every good thing that the center and left has said about minority groups in America". For it is almost assured that, win or lose, Trump will gain a majority of the white vote. And at that point, it might be worth dusting off William J. Wilson's 1860 essay What Shall We Do With the White People?, asking "are they fit for self-government?" If democracy "is the theory that the people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard," straight white Christian men want Trump; with all the implications that entails for their commitment to (what we've told ourselves are) the basic tenets of the American creed. If Clinton wins, it will be due to passion and commitment of non-white voters going to bat for her in the general election. Given the stakes of this election, it'd be no exaggeration to say that it will have been the American Others -- African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, Arabs, Jews, Muslims, and more -- who will have ultimately saved the American experiment.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Things People Blame the Jews For, Volume XXIX: Plummeting Caviar Stocks

Rich people, as a rule, love caviar. And Jews, as any good anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist knows, are all rich. But the really woke anti-Semites know that Jews don't eat caviar (it's not kosher). And with caviar-producing sturgeon facing threats from invasive species -- well, it's not hard to put the pieces together (particularly if every puzzle has the same answer):

“Introduced species can disturb the ecosystem of an area,” Seyyed Jafar Mousavi[], the Deputy Head of Intelligence and Operation Department at the Biological Headquarters of Civil Defence Organization, said in an interview with Mehr News Agency, as translated by IFP. 
Some species can do more harm than good to an ecosystem, he noted. 
He noted that Caspian seal, Kilka and Sevruga fish belong to the Caspian Sea; however, comb jellies are alien species that have come from the Atlantic Ocean. 
“We firmly believe that the Zionist regime [Israel] is behind the conspiracy of nuisance species as they had sworn to do so,” Mousavi added.
Good catch (get it? "Catch"? Because fish)! The goyim will fall to their knees if the Zionist cabal can deprive their leaders of their precious caviar!

Saturday, July 23, 2016

At Least Get Your Stupid Slavery Analogies Right

Scott Walker's newest appointee to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Daniel Kelly, had the following to say about affirmative action:
"Affirmative action and slavery differ, obviously, in significant ways," Kelly wrote. "But it's more a question of degree than principle, for they both spring from the same taproot. Neither can exist without the foundational principle that it is acceptable to force someone into an unwanted economic relationship. Morally, and as a matter of law, they are the same."
First, let's clarify that this passage wasn't something Kelly wrote as a drunk sophomore in his university's "alternative" political magazine. He wrote it in 2014, and he included it in his Supreme Court application packet. This is an argument he is proud of.

And that aggravates me. For the obvious reasons, sure, but more because this isn't even the right way of making an idiotic analogy between affirmative action and slavery. The right way of doing that is something to the effect of "both involve the distribution of social benefits and burdens on the basis of skin color." That wouldn't make the conclusion that "Morally, and as a matter of law, they are the same" any less appalling, but at least it would have an internal consistency to it.

But Kelly can't even get that right. Affirmative action very rarely "force[s] someone into an unwanted economic relationship." Much the opposite -- typically affirmative action programs are voluntarily adopted by given institutions (e.g., the University of Wisconsin), and then challenged by external actors who want them instead to use a colorblind admissions/hiring process -- or, to put it another way, want the judiciary to force them into an economic transaction that differs from the one that the university or business would want to enter into if left to its own devices.

This is why I find it so baffling when libertarians say they oppose affirmative action. It takes either a private or quasi-private (where a governmental actor is behaving as a "market-participant") decision, and strips it from the normal decisionmaker in favor of a blanket command-and-control rule imposed by governmental fiat. Libertarians should hate that!

Actually, it seems evident that Kelly simply got his issues confused. The argument he's making has been applied to cherished elements of the civil rights project before -- but it's the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that's been the target (Rand Paul made precisely the argument that this law, by prohibiting racial discrimination in various economic transactions, "force[s] someone into an unwanted economic relationship."). So really Kelly should be arguing that its the Civil Rights Act that is "[m]orally, and as a matter of law" the same as slavery.

In conclusion, Kelly probably won't choke anybody, so he'll still likely be a net boon on the Wisconsin Supreme Court compared to the guy he's replacing.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Sweeping Constitutional Text Aside, Virginia Supreme Court Invalidates Voting Rights Restoration

Earlier this year, Virginia Governor Terry McAullife used his executive powers to restore the voting rights to thousands of ex-felons who had finished their prison term, parole, and/or probation. Today, in a 4-3 decision, the Virginia Supreme Court invalidated the measure -- re-disenfranchising thousands of Virginians. This, simply put, is legally outrageous.

The relevant constitutional clause seems straight-forward enough: Article II, Section 1 of the Virginia Constitution informs us that "No person who has been convicted of a felony shall be qualified to vote unless his civil rights have been restored by the Governor or other appropriate authority." Governor McAullife issued an order which restored voting rights to all persons convicted of a felony who had completed all portions of their sentence (including any parole or probation periods). One would think that would be that -- the constitutional text is clear, and so there is no further work to be done.

But no, says the Court. The structure of this provision indicates that felon re-enfranchisement is meant to be an exception to the rule. The Governor's blanket restoration of voting rights turns the rule into the exception -- effectively becoming a suspension of the constitutional mandate that felons normally experience a lifetime bar on voting.

This, to put it mildly, is jaw-dropping in its reach. It's not just that it is obviously extra-textual -- although it is. It's that it is obviously extra-textual without being bounded by anything that purports to be a judicially enforceable rule or standard for when the governor can exercise his re-enfranchisement power. We're told he can't do it in a "blanket" proceeding -- everybody, all at once. It is presumably evident, though, that the Governor maintains his authority to exercise his enfranchisement authority individually -- or even in groups. So we're left with a "how many grains make a heap" problem that is not conducive to any non-arbitrary answer. Reportedly, 11,000 persons have already registered to vote under Gov. McAullife's order (out of over 200,000 became eligible) and now will have their registration's purged. It seems to me that Governor McAullife's next move should be just be to restore voting rights to those 11,000 (if the Court is as concerned as it claims to be regarding the fact that McAullife didn't include their individual names, I'm sure judicious use of the ol' autopen could resolve that). Would that act convert the rule into the exception? Who knows -- this opinion certainly provides no guidance on the matter. The very fact that we could get caught in this sort of infinite ping-pong match between executive and judiciary without any hints as to where the Governor's authority ends is proof positive of the radically unprincipled nature of the Court's decision.

This, alone, would make for a good reason to defer to a member of one of those democratic branches the Court recognizes ought to be the default site for these sorts of political disputes. Yet the Court shows an astonishing lack of deference to its democratically-accountable fellow. Why? Well, the Court says, apparently no other Governor has used its enfranchisement authority in this sort of sweeping, broad manner; it infers that if such a power did exist, some other Virginia Governor would have exercised it by now. It seems evident that an equally-plausible alternative explanation exists, which is that no governor until now felt particularly interested in blanket reenfranchisement. This, after all, is a decision fraught with political risk, and therefore is perfectly guarded by regular political checks. If Virginia voters find blanket voting restorations intolerable, they are welcome to make their voices known in the next gubernatorial election. This is not the sort of decision that is either benefited by nor amenable to being taken out of the political arena shunted into the judiciary.

Indeed, it strikes me that this case represents the essence of the so-called "political questions" that Courts would be better off leaving aside for the democratic branches (here, the governor's office) to handle. In Baker v. Carr, the Supreme Court outlined the factors which point towards a controversy being nonjusticiable as a poltical question. The first two (and in my view the most important two) are

  1. A textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate political department; and
  2. A lack of judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving it.

The Virginia Constitution textually delegates the issue of felon reenfranchisement to the Governor's office, and there is no (and the Court does not even purport to provide) judicially manageable standard for administering the rule/exception doctrine the Court purports to lay out. The Court picking apart whether the Governor's "exceptions" are "exceptional" enough is precisely the sort of judicial micromanaging of an executive function that (to draw again from Baker) "express[es] lack of the respect due [to] coordinate branches of government." Basic recognition of the limits of the judicial role, if nothing else, should have convinced the Court to keep out of this thicket. Now, it is likely stuck in a morass of its own devise. I hope that Governor McAullife uses the power that he does have -- whatever that might be, since lord knows this decision blurs things up nicely -- to at least get those persons who already tried to register back on the rolls.

UPDATE: Looks like McAuliffe is going to try to restore voting rights one-by-one, if necessary. Bold move.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Taking Clients Seriously

A criminal defendant facing charges after a gun and drugs were found in his dorm room tells his attorney he was framed. The attorney was dubious -- sure you were -- but has the resources to check out his client's story. Turns out, the client was almost certainly right. After relaying this tale (taken from his own professional experience), Ken White writes the following:
Being an effective and responsible criminal defense attorney doesn't require believing everything a client says, exactly. The policy could be better described as "trust, but verify." The key isn't to build a defense on the premise that everything the client says is perfectly accurate. The key is to take what the client says seriously and follow up on it, rather than dismissing them out of hand. If you don't, you're not defending the client — you're defending your stereotype of the client.
I find it interesting that White's advice here parallels almost exactly my own advice vis-a-vis how we should respond to persons making discrimination claims.  And I don't think it is accidental that the claimants in either scenario -- minorities and marginalized persons, persons accused of crimes (these categories, of course, often intersect) -- are typically persons who tend to be given less credibility as a default; whom society tells it is okay to assume are not worth taking seriously.