Sunday, April 05, 2020

Can Sir Keir Starmer Turn the Page for Labour and the Jews?

The UK Labour Party has chosen its next leader to replace Jeremy Corbyn. Sir Keir Starmer won decisively in the first round of balloting, beating Corbyn's favored successor Rebecca Long-Bailey and back-bencher Lisa Nandy. Starmer was seen as a moderate candidate who nonetheless ran as a unifier, appealing to groups (including many Jews) alienated by Corbyn's hard-left politics while not actively assailing his predecessor.

So -- what does this mean for the UK Jewish community, and its deeply fraught relationship with the nation's main left-of-center party?

The tone is cautiously optimistic -- and I think justifiably so.

The Jewish Labour Movement -- Labour's main Jewish affiliate, and a true warhorse in fighting Labour antisemitism over the past few years -- endorsed Lisa Nandy in this race, but Starmer came in a very strong second and obviously carried significant support. Starmer, whose wife is Jewish and has relatives who live in Israel, took part in a striking moment where he and every other Labour leadership candidate (even Corbynista Long-Bailey) characterized themselves as either "Zionist" or someone who "supports Zionism". Upon his election, his first act was to apologize to the Jewish community for antisemitism in the Labour Party and said he will "'judge [the] success [of his leadership] by the return of Jewish members."

These gestures have been welcomed by the Jewish community, albeit with the reasonable caveat that actions will speak louder than words. Indeed -- but that does not mean the words are not welcome.

What I will say is that Starmer absolutely deserves a chance. These past few years have been rough, and have left scars. They will not heal overnight. There is legitimate basis for mistrust. But healing requires some amount of trust, and of patience. Starmer's victory was decisive, and we're already seeing additional key parts of the party apparatus swing towards "his" people and away from the Corbynista old guard. Still, things will take time and there almost certainly will not be a highly public purge or bloodbath of Corbyn loyalists. I do not think that such a purge is per se necessary for Labour to right ship. Slow, steady leadership, partnerships, open communication, and rebuilding connections may not offer the visceral satisfaction of someone putting Seamus Milne's head on a spike -- but it might ultimately offer a better route forward in the long run.

The risk of the past few years is that they've created wounds that can never heal, because nothing that can be done going forward can undo the hurts of the past. Last year I wrote the following:
British Jews are angry at Labour, and they're by no means unreasonable to feel that way -- I've been quite vocal in calling out the disgusting cesspool of antisemitism that has taken over the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn's watch. That's legitimately anger-inducing. And one could even argue that Jewish anger about this has played a significant role in forcing Labour to come to the table and take what (meager) steps it has taken to tackle antisemitism in its ranks.

But I also worry that this anger and bitterness has gotten so deep that it's almost impossible to imagine any set of steps by which Jews and Labour might reconcile. Even when Labour officials do issue statements or take steps that seem genuinely positive as expressions of the importance of tackling antisemitism, the mistrust runs so thick that they're often immediately rejected -- "what good is this statement or that commitment coming from so-and-so, who's been so terrible to us in the past?"

I'm not saying that these statements or commitments will always be followed through on or even that they're always offered in good faith. I'm saying it almost doesn't seem to matter any more, the efforts that are offered in good faith and would be followed through on are swept away just as decisively by the omnipresent feeling of woundedness and mistrust. At a certain level, what Jewish anger wants out of Labour is for it to have never done such awful things in the first place. But there's nothing Labour can promise to satisfy that demand -- and so the anger can never be placated. And that, ultimately, can only lead us to a destructive place, where Jews and the left must be enemies, because there is no longer anything that can be said or done that is interpreted to be a gesture of friendship (even the most perfectly worded statement can be dismissed as a front or a guise, or insufficient given past sins).
These feelings of woundedness are still present, and if left unattended they could make even a good faith effort by Starmer to rebuild the relationship between Labour and the Jewish community impossible.

So that's my plea -- don't give into that type of bitterness. I'm not saying give Starmer a free pass. I am saying give him a real chance. And the most difficult part of giving someone a real chance is acknowledging and accepting that -- as legitimate as the Jewish community's grievances are -- things will never be fully put to right; yet still, we must move forward.

Friday, April 03, 2020

If You're One in a Million...

Many of you are familiar with the saying "If you're one in a million, there are a thousand people just like you in China alone."

It helps illustrate that while one in a million is certainly very rare, on another way of looking it at it's also quite common. A thousand people! You could fill a high school gymnasium with that!

Push the proportion down a bit and things get even more stark. Imagine a political view held by only 1% of the population. That's pretty fringe, right (for reference, 33% of Americans believe that alien UFOs have visited Earth)? But it's also one in a hundred -- in America, that translates to well over three million people. That's a lot! (We explored this dynamic previously in my "how to tokenize with proportions" post.)

One thing I often think about is how modernity and modern technology, in conjunction with our decidedly pre-modern lizard-brains, don't always mesh well. We know, for example, that fat tastes delicious because in the primordial environment it was rare and vital, and thus highly desirable to consume -- unfortunately, this doesn't translate well to a contemporary context where calories and fat are plentiful and we can easily over-saturate ourselves.

I suspect there's something similar going on with political opinions. One of the oft-proclaimed virtues of the internet is it allows you to find communities of like-minded persons no matter how obscure or random the interest. Obsessed with underwater basketweaving? You can find dozens of people who share that passion with minimal effort!

What does it mean when the same is true for political opinions? I suspect our brains have a rough heuristic at the ready that correlates how difficult it is to find holders of a given opinion with how uncommon it is in society. If one struggles to come across individuals who believe ideology X, one assumes that X is rarely believed in a given society. If one comes across X-believers without too much trouble, one infers that X is a common ideology. If 1% of Americans hold a particular political stance, that may be three million people -- but (at least until recently) they're not going to be easy to find via the normal modes of political engagement. If you just read newspaper columns, chatted with your neighbors, watched TV pundits, and so forth, you'd probably come across it rarely, if ever. If one really wanted to find a sizable chunk of Americans who believe this 1% view, one would have to expend considerably more effort.

Now to be clear: what I'm describing is only a heuristic, which means it's imperfect -- there are all sorts of reasons why, for example, a rare opinion might nonetheless be easy to spot "in the wild" (it's favored among extroverts or celebrities, e.g.) or a common one might be rarely seen (it's embarrassing). But it has some logic as a rough-and-ready way of telling us which views are common in our social circle and which aren't. It's not quite the same as the availability heuristic, but it is similar. Call it the search heuristic. Something easy to find upon commencing a search for it is common; something hard to find even when searching for it is rare.

The problem is that if modern technology makes pretty much any opinion with even a speck of public salience "easy to find", that hijacks our heuristic circuitry to make all of these opinions register in our minds as "commonplace". What is the result of that?

One potentially positive result is that it might offset some mechanisms that serve to silence dissident views via the so-called "spiral of silence" -- they learn that they're not alone, and so they're more willing to air their dissident views knowing that there are peers who share their perspective.

But there are also some potential upshots that I'm more ambivalent about. One thing that we might experience is the erosion of perceived consensus -- a sense of widespread opinion balkanization and a corresponding vertiginous inability to tell when there is an opinion that carries significant social agreement. There's a push/pull on this -- sometimes, a feeling of "consensus" is dependent on wrongly not perceiving the existence of dissent, and so the elevation of dissident voices corrects a widespread social misperception. But, assuming "consensus" does not require universal agreement, sometimes, a feeling of dissensus is falsely inspired by the presence of high-profile but ultimately negligible dissenters. To the extent that modern technology makes very small ideological minorities loom larger, we might believe ourselves to be far more disunited than we actually are. And if the search heuristic causes a wide range of opinions (many mutually incompatible with one another) to register as "common", we may have trouble grasping onto distinctions between actually common versus fringe outlooks.

In a similar vein, it is at least plausible that in a democracy there is a prima facie obligation to consider and give airing to certain viewpoints simply by virtue of the fact that they're common. This wouldn't necessarily mean that uncommon views can be automatically rejected, only that they must "earn" their space on the democratic agenda by means other than "because many people believe it". If this is so, then the perception that more views are "common" mean that more views can claim access to this prima facie obligation of consideration. Perhaps that doesn't strike you as a bad thing -- but consider it in the case of, say, openly avowed racism or extremism -- views which might objectively be as rare as ever, but perhaps feel more common than they've been in recent memory.

There are also risks latent even for the holders of the dissident opinions themselves, for they as much as anyone might be mislead into thinking their views are more widely shared than they are. If someone holds a view they know is rare but wish was widely shared, they must endeavor to persuade others to adopt it. If they then, say, run for office on its platform whose tenets are held by only 10% of the population, if (or when) they lose they probably won't be happy but they at least probably won't be confused. Unpopular opinions don't win elections.

But things are different if the search heuristic misfires and makes the dissident believe they are actually expressing a very common view. If they nonetheless persistently lose in the democratic arena, they might suspect bias, corruption, institutional barriers, or other forms of foul play are obstructing them. To be clear: there are many cases where such things are at work; I'm not saying that everyone who believes their views are not carrying the democratic day because of various social biases is simply misleading themselves. But sometimes a democratic spade really is just a spade; and there is at least the potential for this sort of self-deception to accelerate -- the result being greater mistrust and resentment of social institutions.

It's worth noting that there isn't an "objective" way of declaring whether a view is "rare" or not. Much of it already lies in framing: "held by 1% of the population" sounds uncommon, "held by three million Americans" sounds reasonably common. So we can't quite say that, even if the search heuristic is misfiring, it is objectively causing us to label "uncommon opinions" as "common". But I do suspect that our wider net of appraisals around how we relate to an opinion based on its perceived "commonality" are tied to the same set of assumptions under which the search heuristic should function at least roughly well -- meaning that if we no longer exist in that social world, the whole edifice comes under serious strain (if it doesn't collapse outright).

These are preliminary thoughts; they are not wholly hashed out in my mind yet, and I'm curious to hear others' views. Here's the tl;dr

  1. The search heuristic tells us that, roughly speaking, a view that is hard to find upon searching for it is rare, and a view that is easy to find upon searching for it is commonplace.
  2. The social media revolution has drastically reduced the search costs required to find large absolute numbers of persons who hold any particular view, even when they are actually relatively uncommon.
  3. Together, (1) & (2) cause us to mentally code many viewpoints which we'd perceive as uncommon as quite common (since we are able to find examples of them with little effort).
  4. The effects of this are unclear, but may include (a) increased willingness to air dissident views; (b) decreased sense of social consensus; (c) decreased ability to distinguish relatively common versus uncommon views; (d) decreased trust that formal mechanisms for measuring public opinion reliably track actual public viewpoints (even when they are in fact doing so reasonably well).

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Advancing Downward

For your pleasure, a tiny example of academic absurdity I encountered today.

As many of you know, I'm completing my Ph.D in the UC-Berkeley Political Science department. Today, I was asked by the department if I would be interested in teaching a class for them this fall. I had a few logistical questions, but the important one for our purpose was how this job -- and in particular, its pay -- would be impacted if I filed my dissertation (and thereby finished the program over the summer).

To be clear: regardless of whether I was technically still a Ph.D. student or an actual, factual minted Ph.D., I'd be teaching the exact same class and doing the exact same work. I'd just have a different title: "Lecturer" if I have a Ph.D., "Acting Instructor" if I do not.

So you might be thinking that I shouldn't get a pay raise just because I've got some fancy new letters after my name (you might also think that, if one's job description is exactly the same as a "Ph.D. student" versus as a department lecturer, then such "students" are, in fact, employees and should be treated as such. But we'll leave that aside for now.).

But if I would just be paid the same for the same class before and after garnering the credential of Ph.D., I wouldn't find that absurd and I wouldn't be writing this post. No, the truth is that if I deign to file my dissertation and graduate, I'd be paid less as a Lecturer -- substantially so. I'd also lose my health insurance.

So as best I can tell, the best play for me is to just arbitrarily delay "finishing" my Ph.D., even if it is complete by this summer. Which seems foolish for a host of reasons -- but certainly not more foolish than nominally advancing up the ladder of academia resulting in somehow making less money with fewer benefits than a graduate student.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

My Encounters with Richard Epstein

Apropos of current events, I thought I might share my three encounters with Richard Epstein.

Normally, I'd say "interactions" rather than "encounters", but in this case it would not be accurate -- there was no "inter-", as I never got a word in edgewise.

The first time came while I was sitting in the University of Chicago Law School common area (Epstein was for many years a University of Chicago law professor, though these days he's more associated with NYU and the Hoover Institute at Stanford). The law school cafe does not have pizza, but that day I had gone to the main food court on campus to pick up a few slices which I had brought back to the law school to eat. Epstein spotted my pizza as he was walking across the room and, without breaking stride or taking a breath said something like the following:
Where did you get that pizza I like pizza you can't get good pizza around here it's not like New York maybe I'll get some pizza for lunch!
Despite the fact that the opener was at least nominally addressed as a question to me, he never glanced backwards and I never had a chance to speak. By the time he was finished with his train of thought, he was halfway across the room and out of earshot anyway.

The second encounter came while I was sitting in on a faculty workshop featuring a presentation by Bernard Harcourt (now at Columbia) on 19th century French grain market regulations (or something like that). Harcourt is a good old fashioned Foucault acolyte, which made him stand out a bit at Chicago in general, and the thesis of this paper was that there was no such thing as market "deregulation" only "reregulation", which made him a target of Epstein in particular. Epstein asked him how it could be that there was no such thing as "deregulation" -- what if you just repeal all the regulations? -- and Harcourt responded by saying that the market is its own form of regulation that can have just as much disciplining effect, so "repealing" the regulations just results in a different form of regulation emerging. This answer was not satisfactory to Epstein, and they went back and forth along this vein for a bit -- is this deregulation or reregulation? -- until Epstein got frustrated and exclaimed "well that's just a semantic game." And Harcourt responded, with the perfect serenity of a continental political theorist:
"Everything is just a semantic game."
Reports were that it was the only time most of Epstein's colleagues had actually seen him rendered speechless.

The third encounter was also at a faculty workshop, this one for M. Todd Henderson, a corporate law professor and bastion of the law school's right flank, whom I happened to know idolized Epstein. I forget what Henderson was presenting on, but it must have been some way of de-(or re-?)regulating corporate law so as to minimize the government's role, and one could tell from the puppy eyes that he was hoping for Epstein's approval. Alas, it was apparently still too much government for Epstein, who went on a sustained rant that concluded "and then we're on the path to totalitarianism!" All of Epstein's comments on the papers of others concluded with that, but Henderson was still crushed.

Finally, while not an "encounter" per se, there was a running joke around the law school while I was there, to the effect that if Richard Epstein wrote the Constitution it would have only one amendment which would read "Congress shall make no law." In a similar vein, his known status as a polymath who worked in a dizzying array of legal subfields was thought to be counterbalanced by the somewhat "thematic" link tying together the contribution he was said to bring to all of them: if it's communications law, abolish the FCC. If it's election law, abolish the FEC. If it's health care law, abolish the FDA. If it's environmental law, abolish the EPA .... you get the idea.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Best Epic Rap Battles of History (By Season)

Look, we're all bored here, so let's award the best Epic Rap Battles of History for each season.

Season One

Winner: Albert Einstein vs. Stephen Hawking
Honorable Mentions: Dr. Seuss vs. Shakespeare, Napoleon vs. Napoleon

The season that started it all. Honestly, though, I think only Einstein vs. Hawking can compete with the stronger entrants in later seasons. The creators -- reasonably enough! -- were still finding their rhythm (get it?).

Season Two
Winner: Michael Jackson vs. Elvis
Runner-up: Rasputin vs. Stalin
Honorable Mentions: Steve Jobs vs. Bill Gates, Cleopatra vs. Marilyn Monroe

Now we're cooking. The kid who plays young Michael Jackson was superb, and carries his battle to victory. The Rasputin vs. Stalin (vs. Lenin vs. Gorbachev vs. Putin) battle was strong almost top-to-bottom (only Gorbachev was a bit of a sour note for me). Jobs vs. Gates was a ton of a fun (remember those Mac vs. PC ads?). And Cleopatra vs. Monroe was a superb all-women battle with some truly vicious disses. Freddie Mercury's performance over Frank Sinatra was also a stand-out, but he won so convincingly the battle was actually too one-sided to make this list.

Season Three
Winner: Isaac Newton vs. Bill Nye
Runner-up: Edgar Allen Poe vs. Stephen King
Honorable Mention: Bob Ross vs. Pablo Picasso 

It's tough to top getting Weird Al in one of these (though if Neil deGrasse Tyson had actually played himself -- which I've heard he was willing to do -- it would have been even cooler). Stephen King has one of the best closing lines in the whole series. Bob Ross vs. Picasso is relatively light, but consistent all the way through. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles vs. their namesake Renaissance Artists was good, but the performance was a little short. I also suspect I'm virtually alone in thinking that Miley Cyrus beat Joan of Arc (and pretty decisively, frankly).

Season Four
Winner: Stan Lee vs. Jim Henson
Runner-up: Western Philosophers vs. Eastern Philosophers
Honorable Mention: Ellen vs. Oprah

If you forced me to pick my absolute, all-time favorite, I'd probably go with Lee vs. Henson -- but it'd be torture. If you asked to pick me single favorite verse, though, it'd be Walt Disney's intervention in Lee vs. Henson -- and it would not be close. It's brilliant from start to finish (and, to be clear, compliments very strong work from Lee and Henson). As a political theorist, I found the philosophy battle hilarious. Ellen vs. Oprah is also a very good, evenly matched battle (and one of the few "clean" ones on ERB).

Season Five
Winner: George R.R. Martin vs. J.R.R. Tolkien
Runner-up: Gordon Ramsay vs. Julia Child
Honorable Mentions: Tony Hawk vs. Wayne Gretzky, Ash Ketchum vs. Charles Darwin

This was an absolutely loaded season -- I think clearly ERB's strongest overall. Tolkien's final verse where he works in all the titles of the Lord of the Rings is just masterful. I'm a dedicated Gordon Ramsay fan but Julia Child completely kicked his ass. Tony Hawk's incredible first verse is matched by Wayne Gretzky's brutal last verse. And Darwin has one of the great one-liners of all-time calling Ash "Mighty Morphin' Michael Vick." All that talent means a ton of tracks I love don't even make it onto the honorable mentions list here: (Daniel Craig) James Bond vs. Austin Powers, Ivan the Terrible versus various "the Greats", Wonder Women versus Stevie Wonder, and Winston Churchill versus Theodore Roosevelt are all superb.

Season Six
Winner: Guy Fawkes vs. Che Guevara
Runner-up: Elon Musk vs. Mark Zuckerberg
Honorable Mention: Ronald McDonald vs. The Burger King

This was a shaky season on the whole, but Fawkes vs. Guevara is one of the best in the entire series -- a distinction based primarily around the dead-on Che Guevara portrayal (who knew he also looks exactly like John Snow), but certainly with an impressive toe-to-toe performance from Fawkes. Musk vs. Zuckerberg has a wonderful subtle gag running through it in that Mark "I don't even fucking blink" Zuckerberg in fact never blinks during the whole video. The McDonald vs. Burger King rap sneaks into honorable mention, but not due to either of the titular characters -- Wendy steal the show. Wendy's the company actually tweeted about the rap, which is a bit gutsy given their mascot's line about how she's "exploiting you both like you were growing my tomatoes."

Thursday, March 26, 2020

It's Coronatime! Roundup

While I'm dubious that there are actually large numbers of people who will consciously avoid Corona beer because of coronavirus, I still can't fathom what their PR people are going to do with this. It's like all those apartment complexes called "The Isis" -- you hate to see pretty word get ruined like that.

* * *

Trump campaign threatens the operating licenses of stations which run ads critical of Trump's handling of the coronavirus (the ad is damn good too). The real tragedy is that, with college campuses largely closed, there probably isn't some 19-year old Oberlin kid with a stupid protest we can all point to as "the real threat to freedom of speech in America."

Hobby Lobby CEO decides God wants him to keep his stores open, but doesn't really care about giving his workers paid sick leave.

Democrats made the coronavirus bill that passed the Senate much, much better than it was at the start.

Billionaires are ready for American workers to start working again, goddammit!

Technically ex-Rep. Brenda Jones (it's complicated) is seeking a rematch against "Squad" darling Rep. Rashida Tlaib. One might think Jones' unabashed stanning of Louis Farrakhan would present a problem given literally every Jewish opinion piece on antisemitism that's run over the past three years; but you'd be surprised (or not) at how, er, "open-minded" some folks are suddenly capable of being given the opportunity to take out Tlaib (Jones' ongoing praise and admiration for Farrakhan and his organization vs. a solitary article written by Tlaib in an NoI publication 15 years ago -- these probably wash out, right?). The ultimate kicker: Tlaib almost certainly will crush Jones anyway, so all this selling out of deep-seated principles will be for naught.

DOJ intercedes in court to argue that allowing trans women to compete in women's sports (and, one imagines, trans men to compete in men's sports?) is not required by and may indeed violate Title IX.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

UK Jewish Community Hit Especially Hard by Coronavirus

In the United Kingdom, Jews represent approximately .3% of the population. They also currently comprise nearly 5% of all coronavirus deaths.

Obviously, my heart goes out to them. But I can't help but think that one of the cruel ironies of antisemitism is that, if Jews were disproportionately unlikely to be victims, it would be proof that we're behind the virus, and if we're disproportionately likely to be victims, it would be proof that we're spreading the virus. There's no winning in the antisemitic imagination.

Monday, March 23, 2020

World Zionist Congress Election Results: Catastrophe

The World Zionist Congress results are in, and they're ... bad. No way around it -- it's just a catastrophe all around.

I was supporting the Hatikvah slate, which represents progressive groups like Ameinu and J Street and finished fifth last election. This year, Hatikvah made a big push to improve its showing and succeeded in doubling its vote share ... only to come in seventh (with 6% of the vote). Conservative groups rallied to in response to Hatikvah's mobilization, and dramatically improved their showing. Two Orthodox groups, Orthodox Israel Coalition – Mizrachi and Eretz Hakodesh, surged to second and third place (both positioned themselves on the conservative end of the Orthodox spectrum). Less ultimately consequential but more insulting was that the ZOA slate leap-frogged over Hatikvah to finish fourth with 8%.

The plurality winner remained the Reform Jewish slate (which is a progressive bloc as well), but saw a vastly reduced vote share, dropping from 39% to 25%. The centrist Conservative movement slate (MERCAZ) also dipped from 19% to 12%. Basically, the right -- both in terms of religious equality and anti-democratic values -- saw huge gains against brutal losses for the left and center. Whatever the next WZC does, it will almost certainly favor settlements, annexation, the Orthodox monopoly, and the acceleration of Israeli illiberalism.

Other people more plugged in than I can probably explain these results better than I can. If you pressed me, my hypotheses are:
(a) Hativkah's initial success in mobilizing energy and support made it into an effective boogeyman for the right, and this "counterattack" ultimately had greater reach than Hatikvah's pool of progressive support; 
(b) Orthodox communal groups took the election more seriously and have strong GOTV norms in their communities; and 
(c) a growing shift where the American Jews who will self-select into explicitly "Israel" related political activity (at least, activity that isn't solely critical) are primarily the right-wing ones.
Oh, and in Israel itself, the speaker of the Knesset is refusing to allow a vote on his replacement because it looks like the current opposition has a majority. So that's one giant leap toward autocracy.

It's nice to know that, even with the coronavirus disaster bearing down on us, we can still periodically poke our heads up and turn our gaze over to other, totally different catastrophes.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

How It All Came Apart for Sanders

In the space of about a week, Bernie Sanders went from likely Democratic nominee to virtually dead in the water. How did it all go wrong? The New York Times has its entry up in what I'm sure will be a crowded pool.

It's an interesting article, in part because it doesn't have a clear through-line. At times, the piece seems to blame Sanders' reluctance to directly attack Joe Biden (whom he apparently is personally fond of), against the recommendation of more pugnacious advisers (but in line with others who urged him to take a more unifying line). Under this view, going after Biden (on things like the crime bill) would have been the only way to crack his solid support in the African-American community -- but Sanders wasn't willing to "go low" and it cost him.

That account would pose a direct challenge to the "Sanders was too mean" narrative that many folks have coalesced around. But at other points in the article, the authors suggest a different diagnosis -- focusing on Sanders' refusal to modulate his attacks on the "establishment" as a means of expanding his core progressive base and making inroads to the rest of the party. Sanders was extremely reluctant to do the basic political legwork of "assuring concerned stakeholders" or "reach out to secure endorsements", and instead alienated potential allies with undifferentiated broadsides that seemed to be fired against the Democratic Party as a whole. Advisers who defended his strategy here seemed to think that Sanders should only approach the Democratic Party from a position of strength (remember "bend the knee"?). Once Sanders were clearly in a dominant position, then they could reconcile -- but with it obvious who the alpha dog was.

This is a perhaps more "traditional" (if we can use that term yet) account of why the Sanders campaign ended up unraveling, one that puts the blame on his refusal to do the political work of winning an entire party. The same no-compromise qualities that endeared him to his core base severely hampered any instincts Sanders might have had to reach out.

Anyway, it is an interesting piece even (or perhaps because) the account it gives doesn't lend itself to a clear conclusion.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Keeping the Curve Flat

Much of the Bay Area, including Berkeley, is under "shelter-in-place" guidelines at least through early April. It's basically semi-compulsory social distancing: we're not locked in our houses, but we're only supposed to leave for grocery shopping, medical services, or to go on a walk (six feet distant from any fellow pedestrians).

The goal of all this is to "flatten the curve" of new coronavirus infections. It won't stop new infections, but it will spread them out so the medical system isn't overwhelmed.

I'm supremely lucky in that shelter-in-place isn't a huge burden on me -- I work from home anyway, and I'm enough of an introvert that I frankly don't leave the apartment as often as I should even under the best of circumstances. But society-wide this sort of living arrangement will be tough to maintain over a long period of time. Yet I don't have a clear sense of what sorts of conditions would signify it's safe to lift the guidelines and let public events (anything from sports to school) proceed again. Even if the guidelines work to flatten the curve, wouldn't it get pointy again the moment people started congregating in masses again?

Put differently: shelter-in-place and social distancing rules are a holding pattern. But it's not clear to me at least what we're holding for. Anybody have an answer to that?

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Should I PlagueWatch It?: Jelle's Marble Runs

This is a YouTube series -- several of them, actually -- featuring marbles racing against each other in a variety of competitive events. The current season is "Marbula One" -- a Grand Prix where sixteen marbles go down MarioKart style tracks (first in qualifying heats, then in a free-for-all multi-lap race). Prior seasons have featured the Marble Olympics, with various teams ("The Green Ducks", "The Rojo Rollers", etc.) competing across events ranging from the 5 meter sprint to a giant maze to a rafting course.

It's brilliant. It's got high production values complete with time splits, medal podiums, stands filled with (marble) fans, inspired courses, and an announcer who makes it sound exactly like you were watching the Olympic games. Much like LegoMasters (which is or will be another PlagueWatch recommendation), it sings because brings to life our childhood imagination -- these were not the tracks and events you actually built, these are what you had in mind when you were building but never could reach because you were nine and time is limited.

It's a perfect filler for the sports void we're currently going through, and is just the right mix of competitive and silly to serve as an antidote to these anxious times. Pick a team (I'm partial to the "O'rangers" -- pronounced "Oh Rangers" and chanted "Ohhhhh Rangers!"), settle down on the couch, and prepared to have your heart leap surprisingly high in your chest as two marbles criss-cross for first place on the final home stretch.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Should I PlagueWatch It?: Avenue 5

If there's one thing I do a lot of, it's binge-watch television. And that is a skill that is suddenly in high demand, as we all hunker down indoors (you are doing that, right?) and hope that 'rona doesn't take us.

So -- in what may but hopefully won't(?) become an ongoing series -- I'll offer you some quick thoughts on some of the shows I am, or have just recently finished, watching with an eye towards answering the question: Should I PlagueWatch it? First up: HBO's Avenue 5.

So first -- this a show with a stellar comedic cast, many of whom turn in standout performances. Hugh Laurie is great and it's a ton of fun watching him switch accents from scene to scene or even sentence to sentence. Zach Woods brings great Jared-from-Silicon-Valley energy (Advertising the bar on-ship: "Do you like to drink? I know my dad did."). Suzy Nakamura scratches an I-didn't-know-I-had-it-but-makes-sense itch for "what if Melinda May from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was every bit as scary, but entirely in the service of being an enabling corporate sycophant?"  And new-to-me Lenora Crichlow is perhaps my absolute favorite as the only truly competent member of the crew (who nonetheless is by no means perfect).

I also like that the stakes are weirdly kept pretty low given the core premise (a space cruise ship is knocked off course and a two month cruise now is projected to last several years). It's only vaguely alluded to but the ship appears to be somewhat self-sustaining with respect to supplies, so the main "threats" are panic and idiocy among the crew and passengers. Which certainly quickly becomes threatening, but it's a comedic threat, not an existential "death inevitably bores down upon us" type of threat. I prefer that greatly.

That said, given the comedic talent on the show and the great individual performances, the whole does feel like less than the sum of its parts. Many of the individual episode plots never quite gel, and so one ends up watching for one-off moments of great comedy rather than an overarching story. Meanwhile, quite a few of the characters are (intentionally) very grating, and there isn't a ton of effort expended on why they're indulged so much. We've seen Josh Gad's character (the pampered idiot rich kid owner of the cruise line) a million times before, and -- no disrespect to Gad's performance -- I've never once found it anything but aggravating.

It's also fair to wonder whether "we're trapped indefinitely in a defined enclosed space with a vague but certainly real threat of doom hovering around us" is the vibe you want to run with at this particular moment in time.

Still, it's a relatively quick nine episode season, so it's an easy binge. Overall, I give it a qualified recommendation -- not a must-see, but can definitely fill a gap in your schedule if you're running low on more satisfying fare.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Will Liberal Zionism Be the Bundism of the 21st Century?

Born in 1907, Isaac Deutscher was one of the more prominent Jewish Marxist intellectuals of the 20th Century. Prior to World War II, his commitment to Marxism caused him to oppose Zionism as antithetical to the cause of international socialism. After the Holocaust, however, he lamented his prior position, writing that "If, instead of arguing against Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s, I had urged European Jews to go to Palestine, I might have helped to save some of the lives that were to be extinguished in Hitler’s gas chambers."

I'm inclined to think Deutscher was a little too hard on himself. It's not just that nobody can predict the future. It's that many political positions, plausible in the particular historical moment they were adapted, turn out to lead to dead-ends or calamities -- not because of an intrinsic rot in their views, but because of the unpredictable contingencies and choices and events far outside the individual capacity or reckoning of any one person to influence.

There are ideologies that are wrong "in the moment", such that we can justly judge harshly someone who adhered to them without demanding clairvoyance as to the ultimate route of history. But the Jews, such as the Bundists,* who opposed anti-Zionism in the early 20th century because they believed instead that Jewish equality should be fought for "here" rather than "there", are not I think culpable in this way. They believed that equality and security for Jews could come via liberalism and humanist values in any state. Zionists believed they could only be guaranteed in a Jewish state. "In this controversy," Deutscher wrote, "Zionism scored a dreadful victory, one which it could neither wish nor expect." One understands Deutscher's feeling of guilt. But I don't think it was wrong for Deutscher, sitting where he was in 1927, to argue for what he did. His political vision was plausible and defensible. He was entitled to fight for it. But many plausible and defensible political visions, which people are entitled to fight for, do not come to pass -- and this was one of them. History's weave took a plausible, defensible position like Bundism and wrecked it.

Bundism effectively was killed in the Holocaust; only today is it seeing the tiniest stirrings of resurgence in the West. But I wonder if Liberal Zionism -- which I'll summarize as comprising the ideas that a Jewish state in Israel (a) is legitimate as a means of instantiating self-determination for the Jewish people; (b) is compatible with and obligated to secure full democratic and political equality for non-Jews in the state of Israel; and (c) should co-exist side-by-side and peaceably with a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza -- will be this century's Bundism.

I don't mean that it will collapse in a historical calamity as grave as the Holocaust (pray not). What I mean is that, like Bundism, Liberal Zionism is I think a plausible, defensible vision which simply may not survive history's weave. Certainly, those who've always opposed Zionism in any form (and often reserved especial contempt for the liberal variety) have been quick to sing of Liberal Zionism's demise, and to deride those who purported to think of it as anything but a masquerade for oppression. But those of us who genuinely held to Liberal Zionism as our vision of the future are today gripped with an unprecedented wave of pessimism and despair, as we find it harder and harder to see a viable path forward to actualize all its commitments. We can squabble all we want over who is to "blame" for its infirmity -- Israeli maximalism versus Palestinian intransigence; Bibi versus Abbas; Trump versus Obama; Arafat walking away at Camp David or Kushner pulling the rug out with his "peace plan" -- but Liberal Zionism's vitality as an achievable political future seems to be shriveling with every passing day.

And so we're left wondering what our legacy will be in a world where a core political commitment of ours simply ... failed. Probably (hopefully) not in such a cataclysmic fashion as Bundism did, but failed nonetheless. Deutscher was left to wonder what might have been different had he not chosen a failed path. Liberal Zionists may well have to ask ourselves similar questions.

History always feels inevitable in retrospect -- we know, after the fact, what the "right" and "wrong" choices were. But as I said, I'm inclined to be more charitable. That a political vision failed does not mean it was baked into the political universe that it was always doomed to fail. Humans make choices; political action always depends on the choices of others and so carries the unavoidable risk that they will choose in such a way as to close off even plausible, defensible paths. The Bundists lost, but they were not shown to be fools or villains -- and they were entitled to at least view their failure as a tragedy.

Perhaps Liberal Zionism will lose too. If it does, those who held to it will not be fools or villains, and we will be entitled to view our failure as a tragedy. And who knows -- like Bundism, Liberal Zionism may see its own resurgence sometime far into the future. Stranger rebirths have happened.

* Deutscher himself did not join the Bundists either, being uninterested in its attachment to Yiddishism.

Monday, March 09, 2020

The Flight of the Flighty Fanatics

During the course of the Obama administration, I knew some folks who had previously identified as committed Democrats who hated Barack Obama. Hated, hated, hated him -- and not "from the left". These were folks who at least played with all the conspiracies (birtherism, closet Muslim, etc.), thought he was selling America to Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood -- they really went off the deep end. Often times, they were die-hard 2008 Hillary Clinton supporters, but even that has the potential to mislead because by the time 2016 rolled around they viewed Clinton as toxic too because of her tenure in the abominable Obama administration (Benghazi!). In the last election, they often were very loud in calling themselves "independent" because "the Democratic Party left me".

Given the degree to which their hatred of Obama stemmed from truly wild xenophobic fantasies, I kind of just wrote them off as lost to the Trumpist movement. Honestly, they seemed like his perfect voters. All the things that should make a reasonable person detest Trump seemed to me like basically souped-up version of the politics they had been increasingly indulging in since 2008. People who viewed Obama as an incompetent naif cum reckless dictator whose deepest fantasy was to give Iran an open pipeline to import Sharia Law into America weren't going to be repelled by Trump's actual incompetence, recklessness, authoritarian tendencies, etc.

And yet, I've observed some of these people and -- they really don't like Trump. They do think he's incompetent and racist and reckless and at least quasi-authoritarian. From my vantage point, they seem to be just wildly pinballing. At best, it is confirmation of the conventional wisdom that "independent" is another way of saying "low-information and politically incoherent". But I suppose it's good news for the next election?

Thursday, March 05, 2020

Why Winning Alabama Matters

Chris Koski makes an important point regarding one talking point aimed at dismissing Biden's Super Tuesday performance: that it's meaningless because he was only winning "red states" that will play no role in the general election anyway.

To begin, it's not really true: of all the states which have had primary elections so far, the state most likely to be "pivotal" in November is North Carolina, and Biden won there by almost 20 points. And in terms of Sanders' victories, it's not like Utah or (in the other direction) Vermont are going to play decisive roles in the general either.

But also, Koski notes, between voter suppression and high rates of racial polarization in voting, the presidential primary is one of the few opportunities for African-American voters in deep south states like Alabama to influence national and Democratic politics at all. Given that they are a core Democratic constituency, it is a good thing that they get the opportunity to make their mark in the primary process precisely because in the general the Democratic candidate won't really have the opportunity to invest any time there.

This is changing a little bit as some shallow south states become more competitive (see North Carolina again). But if the raw bloodless political calculus is that a Democratic presidential candidate really should ignore African-American voters in Alabama during the general election campaign, that makes it more important that they have the opportunity to exert meaningful influence in the primary.

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

What if Sanders Hadn't Run?

One reason you shouldn't trust me with political prognostication is that I'm not very good at it. For example: I didn't think either Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders would even run this year. Biden I thought missed his window in 2016, and if he didn't want it then he wouldn't have the fire for it now. Sanders, for his part, I thought wasn't the sort of person who dreamed of becoming President -- his 2016 campaign was a gadfly effort that went further than anyone could have predicted, but four years later and in his late 70s he'd be happy to hand off the reins of the movement to someone else.

And that got me thinking: what would this race have been like if Sanders hadn't run? What if -- just as Sanders' original 2016 momentum stemmed out of the "Draft Warren" movement -- Sanders had demurred on the race and instead shunted his considerable base of support over to Elizabeth Warren from the get-go?

Obviously, we can't know for sure how that would have played out. Maybe the intense personal loyalty and fervor Bernie inspires can't be easily transferred over to another. The fact that Warren never really caught on with Democratic voters in the actual timeline gives reasonable grounds for skepticism that she would have done so in any timeline.

However, I think there's a case to be made that if Warren was running solo as the clear progressive choice, she'd have had a better chance of pulling the collective progressive wing of the party over that 50% mark than Bernie does right now (even if/when Warren drops out and endorses him).

For one, fairly or not, Sanders still suffers from the residual soreness some voters have towards the 2016 primary. That doesn't matter in terms of getting from 0% to 30% support, but it might matter a lot for the next stage of the rocket jumping from 30% to 51%. Warren wouldn't have that problem -- indeed, her opening pitch was as the candidate whom both the establishment and the insurgents could respect. That's almost a distant memory now, with the various fights and squabbles between the candidates creating some bitter rifts. But if Sanders hadn't run in the first place, the alignment between his supporters and hers would have almost assuredly gone much smoother.

By now a Warren nomination (which could only happen via a contested convention) would do nothing but infuriate Sanders backers -- and frankly they'd have a point. Yet I can't help but think that if Sanders hadn't run, and Warren was viewed as his ally all along, a hypothetical Warren nomination would have been viewed as a tremendous victory.

Warren also represents a style of progressive political change that is I think both more likely to carry a majority in the party and frankly is just plain healthier. If she was the standard-bearer for the left, the tone she'd set probably wouldn't yield the more aggressive/abusive actions of Sanders' more fanatical supporters -- behavior which really is becoming a serious electoral liability for the latter. She could have run a far more positive version of the campaign Sanders did, and since it wouldn't depend on lobbing verbal grenades at every Democrat whose been in office for more than three years, she would have had a genuine chance of cultivating the sorts of relationships with the Democratic Party officials that could have made a path to 51% plausible. Contrast that to Sanders, whom, as many have noted, is trying to manage the impossible task of running to become the leader of a party he despises. Warren, at the very least, doesn't despise the Democratic Party, which makes a big difference when you're running to head it up.

Again, I'm not saying that story would have been inevitable. There's ample suspicion on the left that "the party" would try to crush Warren with the same fervor that they targeted Sanders (I think "the party" actually kept pretty quiet this year, but okay). And moreover, there's a very strong case that Sanders' appeal depends on his ability to harness anger and rage and the rougher emotions, and that Warren filing those off wouldn't have seen her go from 30% to 50% but rather would see her go nowhere. Indeed, I think the conventional wisdom right now is systematically underrating the possibility that "electability" and "seen as a firebrand" are positively rather than negatively correlated -- this possibility to me is the best argument for why Sanders is more electable than Biden.

Nonetheless, this was a different timeline that it's at least possible to imagine. If Sanders doesn't run, and supports Warren, I think it's very likely that this race looks very different. The leading left candidate's campaign likely wouldn't see the toxicity that has emerged from some corners of Bernie-land, we'd never have seen the bitter divides within the left that the Sanders/Warren feuds have generated, and on the whole I can very much imagine Elizabeth Warren not just winning the nomination, but winning it in a fashion where the progressive wing of the Democratic Party feels vindicated and energized.

Assorted Super Tuesday Thoughts

As Super Tuesday slides into regular Wednesday, the race looks quite a bit different than it did just a week ago. Joe Biden won at least nine of fourteen states in play today -- Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, Texas, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Minnesota (and is ahead in Maine, though it's still too close to call). Sanders won his home state of Vermont as well as Utah, California, and Colorado.

Oh, and Michael Bloomberg won American Samoa.

So where are we now? Is this a Biden coronation? Wherefore my beloved Elizabeth Warren? And did anything interesting happen downballot?

  • Obviously this was a really good night for Biden. Early in the evening I thought people might be overstating just how good it was by over-weighting the absolute whupping Biden handed out in Virginia. But no: this was a really good night for Biden. It wasn't a complete knockout blow, but he basically ran the table on "surprises". He won all the states that were even close to "toss-ups", and at least a few which were though to be strong Sanders locales. And while Sanders had the misfortune of having his better states be further west (and thus reporting later), Biden winning Texas takes the wind out of the sails of Sanders' emphatic victory in California.
  • The Black community is not a monolith. But overall, Biden is creaming Sanders among Black voters. That's just the truth. Sanders has improved on his numbers in the Black community since 2016, but not by a lot, and in states like Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia ... that's going to leave a mark.
  • So is Sanders dead in the water? I don't think so. First, remember last week when everyone was thinking Sanders had it basically sewn up? Things change quickly. And to the extent the race consolidates down to Biden versus Sanders -- well, I think Biden might start with an edge in support, but I think Sanders can clean his clock in a debate context. There's still a lot of room for movement here.
  • That said, I do think Sanders' theory of the case has been severely damaged today. Yes, he's crushing it among young voters margin-wise -- but he doesn't seem to actually driving greater turnout. Indeed, surprisingly enough, we're seeing big turnout increases in places where Biden cleaned up. Virginia voter turnout nearly doubled from 2016 to 2020. South Carolina surged too. The thesis of Broockman/Kalla paper (go Bears!) -- that Sanders' path to victory in November relies on not just winning big among the youth but getting them to actually show up to the polling place, and that's a dodgy bet -- seems more and more plausible.
  • It's a particular mood where, anytime a particular Democratic candidate seems to be getting traction, I feel a wave of despair and pessimism about their chance of winning the general election. When Sanders was winning, I was gloomy about his November prospects. Then the race opened back up, and I felt a brief sense of relief -- until I thought about Biden as the nominee and immediately was re-enveloped in a feeling of doom. And lest you think this is just a partisan plea for Warren, on the rare occasions I felt any possibility that she might win the nomination, I immediately started despairing about the general.
  • Quite a few Sanders partisans who last week were loudly insistent that raw plurality vote wins were the only thing that matter and if you disagree you hate democracy are oddly quiet this evening. Just kidding: they're not quiet -- they're just now loudly saying things about how moderate consolidation around Biden is its own form of cheating, without even a nod at the obvious change in position.
  • What were the biggest upsets of the night? Biden winning Massachusetts wasn't on anyone's radar. But I might say that -- even with Klobuchar's endorsement -- Biden picking up Minnesota might be a bigger surprise. Sanders did really well here in 2016, and right up until Klobuchar dropped out the line from the Sanders camp was "she's only staying in the race to block Sanders!"
  • With all due respect to American Samoa, Bloomberg basically made no impact on the race today. He's apparently going to "reassess" his campaign tomorrow. I will say his team is good at making ads, so I hope Bloomberg continues to dump money into blitzing Trump over the airways.
  • Elizabeth Warren comes in third in her home state, and is only going to cross the 15% viability threshold in Massachusetts, Colorado, Maine, and maybe Minnesota. She'll pick up a few more delegates here and there in congressional districts where she overperformed, but overall, she's pretty well toast. And even the "contested convention" strategy seems difficult to pull off credibly when your best performances during the race are a big stretch into third place.
  • I predict Warren drops out by the end of the week and endorses Sanders. I also predict that the Sanders Twitterati will respond by saying basically "too late, snake". Then they'll wonder why her endorsement didn't really move the needle (they will finally conclude that it's Warren's fault).
  • What's going on downballot? The race I was watching most closely was the Democratic primary in the Texas 28th congressional district, where Rep. Henry Cuellar -- easily one of the worst Democrats in the House -- was facing a stiff primary challenge from Jessica Cisneros. Right now, with about 33% reporting, Cuellar is leading by 5 points. I tend to have a pretty high bar for supporting anti-incumbent challenges, and this was one I backed whole-heartedly, so I'm very disappointed.
  • In the California special election to fill ex-Rep. Katie Hill's seat (CA-35), the big question is who will face Democrat Christy Smith in a run-off. Smith has 33% in a highly fractured all-party primary, leading the pack. Ex-Rep. Steve Knight, whom Hill defeated last cycle, is down eight points to fellow Republican Mike Garcia in the race for the second spot. Unfortunately, combined with the various lesser Republicans, the total GOP vote in the primary is well over 50%, signaling a tough general election fight for Smith. On the other hand, Cenk Uygur right now has less than 5% of the vote, and it is frankly sinful how much pleasure that gives me.
  • Speaking of Uygur, there are a couple of other true sociopaths running (I mean, there are many, especially on the GOP side, but I'm focusing on Democratic primaries here). 

Monday, March 02, 2020

A Few More Reasons Why Black Voters Back Biden

Huge numbers among Black voters in South Carolina gave Joe Biden his first primary victory -- and re-energized the question "why do so many Black voters back Biden?"

Back in January, I gave one partial answer to that question: many Black voters with moderate or conservative views who, absent Republican racism, might be Republican are Democrats because -- again -- Republican racism makes GOP affiliation a non-starter choice for them. Consequently, there is likely (and polling bears this out) a significant percentage of self-identified conservative Black people voting in Democratic primaries, and it shouldn't surprise that they'd find a candidate like Biden relatively appealing compared to other options. More liberal Black voters will find someone like Sanders more appealing (and so it isn't surprising that younger Black voters -- from an overall more liberal generational cohort -- also are far more likely to support Sanders).

Elie Mystal in The Nation offers another hypothesis today: Black voters -- and especially older Black voters who lived through Jim Crow -- know better than to trust that White people really will go for the sort of radical egalitarian politics that Bernie Sanders is putting out there. So even if they might find Sanders appealing in abstract, they're voting pragmatically based on their assessment of White American voter behavior.

I think Mystal's hypothesis (and to be clear, these accounts are not mutually exclusive) also dovetails with a related explanation: the distinction between those who think things can't get meaningfully worse and those who believe they can get much worse. One argument I've seen from some Sanders supporters is basically a claim of "why not try it?" They think things are so screwed up that even if Sanders represents a dice roll it's worthwhile. While sometimes this is framed as them understanding the "real stakes" of this election, to some extent this outlook is based on minimizing the stakes -- not between Sanders and Trump, but between Trump and anyone-not-Sanders. The differences between Trump and all other candidates are collapsed into being two species of very bad (to borrow from a great movie review, one outcome may be materially better than the other, but "only in the same way that dying from natural causes is preferable to crucifixion").

To that, some people -- and again, I can imagine those who've lived through Jim Crow being more prone to this sort of view -- would say you have no idea how bad things can get. The difference between Trump winning and losing -- to any Democrat -- are massive. The degree to which four more years of Trump would intensify human misery among the most vulnerable among us is almost impossible to imagine unless you've lived through something approximating it.

This connects to two different "lessons" I think left-of-center persons could draw from the 2016 election. One lesson is that moderation and safe choices don't win elections, so why not go big? What 2016 discredited was establishment liberalism and its conventional wisdom. Another lesson, though, is that anyone who acts as if there isn't a huge gap between the absolute worst and most compromised Democrat and a Republican is not facing reality. What 2016 discredited was anyone who thinks that the differences between the parties are scant enough so that it ultimately doesn't really matter if Donald Trump is put into office as against establishment alternatives.

It's the difference, ultimately, between people who genuinely feel as if they have nothing to lose, versus people who feel like they know exactly how terrible things could get if they do lose. Different outlooks, and I'm not saying one is better than the other. And of course, there are plenty of supporters of both campaigns that do so for reasons that have nothing to do with this logic -- for example, they think Sanders is the safer pick against Trump (I've found this somewhat persuasive myself, actually!). But I think something like this debate is probably part of what's distinguishing at least some Biden versus Bernie backers.

Sunday, March 01, 2020

Who Will/Should Be the Democratic VP Nominee?

With Joe Biden's resounding victory in South Carolina, political observers can spend a few more days pretending like this primary field is anybody's ballgame before Super Tuesday re-confirms that Bernie Sanders will be the Democratic nominee. So in this narrow window of faux-potentiality, why not ask the question: Who will each Democratic contender nominate as their VP? And who should be their nominee?

Bernie Sanders
Who it will be: Elizabeth Warren.
Who it should be: Tammy Baldwin.

The first big point of potential conflict between Sanders and his base will come when he picks a VP nominee, as he'll be under immense pressure to select a "unifying" figure and they'll be on sharp watch for a centrist fifth column. Sanders' uneasy, at best, relationship with the Democratic establishment limits his options -- there are only so many high profile Democrats he trusts, and most of them are simply double-downs on his own electoral profile.

Elizabeth Warren will seem like an appealing option as a "unity" pick -- she's long been floated as a bridge between the establishment and the insurgents anyway, and she's by far the highest-profile party member whose at least arguably ideologically in his corner. Plus, I think Sanders knows that he needs a woman as VP. But as an outreach gesture towards the center of the party Warren (and I say this as someone who voted for her) is about as stingy as Sanders could get. And depending on how long she stays in the race his base is unlikely to forgive her perssssstance. Instead of being a unity candidate, Warren might again be caught in the middle as the worst-of-all-worlds choice.

By contrast, Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin has sufficient gravitas to be a viable VP pick and has solid progressive bona fides while not being alienating to the center. Most importantly, she's kept a relatively low profile this primary campaign, so nobody on either wing of the party is conditioned to hate her. And the fact that she's from a midwestern swing state that Sanders will target hard is a not-insubstantial bonus.

Joe Biden
Who it will be: Stacey Abrams
Who it should be: Stacey Abrams

Biden announced early on that he wanted Abrams as his VP, and its easy to see why: she's a young, energetic Black woman who has unifying appeal across party constituencies and strong appeal in the areas Democrats are looking to grow in. Abrams herself has largely stayed out of the primary fray, and it's far from clear that Biden is her first choice, but I don't think she would turn him down if he was the nominee.

Mike Bloomberg
Who it will be: Kamala Harris
Who it should be: Lucy McBath

Having been hammered on his record on race, Bloomberg might think that lining up with the most prominent African-American woman in elected office right now might help assuage skittish Black voters going into the general. But Harris never really caught on with the Black community, and if your weakness is on race generally and racial injustice in law enforcement specifically, Kamala "IS A COP" Harris may do less for you than you'd think.

Rep. Lucy McBath (D-GA) would be a stronger choice. Gun control is Bloomberg's signature issue, and since there's no way for him to run away from it come November, he may as well lean into it, and McBath's personal story (her son died after being shot in an incident of gun violence) is a natural fit. McBath herself already endorsed Bloomberg, and while she's taken flak for allegedly having her endorsement "bought", if Bloomberg's the nominee frankly anyone who chooses is going to face that accusation -- so it might as well be someone that endorsed him early.

Elizabeth Warren
Who it will be: Julián Castro
Who it should be: Julián Castro

If my Twitter feed reflected real-life, Warren would be the nominee in a landslide, but if my Twitter account reflected real life Castro would have at some point risen above 2% in the polls. In any event, Castro quickly endorsed Warren after he dropped out and they clearly have a good relationship with one another and a mutually-congenial approach to politics. Castro's youthful dynamism pairs well with Warren's wonkishness, and he also benefits from having dropped out early enough to avoid being hated by large numbers of people.

Pete Buttigieg/Amy Klobuchar

To be honest, even for purpose of this exercise I can't imagine them winning, so it's hard to imagine who they'd pick. Cory Booker could be a solid choice for either one -- Klobuchar could use someone to round off her sharper edges and Buttigieg cannot pick a White guy. Booker is a bucket of positive energy and a good team player, and while he doesn't do a ton to appease the Sanders Sib crowd, I can't think of any VP pick that either Klobuchar or (especially) Buttigieg could make that could mend that rift.

I have heard folks suggest, only half-joking, that Klobuchar and Buttigieg jointly would make a decent all-in-on-the-midwest ticket. There's no way that Klobuchar would serve under Mayor Pete, but I can imagine she might be fine with him being her subordinate. Just think of how many opportunities she'd have to throw a stapler at him!

Friday, February 28, 2020

No News is Good News When It Comes To Polling Jews

There's a new survey out of Jewish voters, and it's chock full of interesting information. The most interesting parts, however, are how normal it is. Every election cycle, it seems, we get a new flurry of psyched-up conservative theorizing insisting that this will be the year that Jews abandon Democrats. And every year, it turns out that Jews still overwhelmingly support Democrats.

And so come 2020, the big news is ... there is no news. Jews are overwhelmingly Democrats. Jews overwhelmingly loathe Trump. While Jews have preferences among the different Democratic candidates, Jews will overwhelmingly back the Democratic nominee no matter who it is. Same as last election. Same as every election.

To go into some more detail:

  • Bernie Sanders is the least popular candidate of the various Democrats running for President. But he's still in net positive territory (+7).
  • Of the other Democrats running, Buttigieg and Klobuchar are the most well liked (+32), followed by Biden (+24), Bloomberg (+19), then Warren (+14).
  • Donald Trump? His approval ratings are a cool -40. 
  • Differences in relative favorability sentiments towards the potential Democratic candidates are not translating into different voting intentions come November. All six Democratic contenders poll roughly the same against Trump, pulling between 65% and 69% of the Jewish vote (Trump's numbers float between 28% and 32%).
At least as far as the general election goes, there is no significant "NeverBernie" movement in the Jewish community to speak of. So yeah, I will screenshot that tweet:


More broadly: I've seen a ton of folks on social media saying things like "Jews don't trust Bernie -- he's only got 11% support in the primary!" These were always misleading and now have been pretty decisively refuted. There's a difference between not being one's top primary choice and being outright mistrusted, let alone being someone who one would vote for Trump over. Jews may not be as keen on Sanders compared to his Democratic competition, but most still like him and we certainly like him a heck of a lot more than Trump.

(As to why Pete Buttigieg is so popular, my hypothesis is that Pete -- whatever else you might say about him -- certainly has serious "such a nice young man!" energy).

Some other high-profile conclusions from the poll are likewise not-news to those in the know. Yes, the vast majority of Jews identify broadly as "pro-Israel". No, this doesn't mean they support the Israeli government uncritically, nor does Israel rank particularly highly as a voting criteria compared to more traditional issues like healthcare or the economy. Again, this is all more-of-the-same behavior from the American Jewish electorate

So what is at least a little more noteworthy? Well, most Jews feel that both they personally and Jews generally are less safe than they were two years ago. 71% of Jews disapprove of how Donald Trump has handled the issue of "Anti-Semitism/White Nationalism" -- his single worst performance on any issue area -- and 56% say he's at least partially to blame for synagogue shootings. This corresponds to a broader repudiation of Trump in essentially every major domestic policy arena -- his disapprovals are upwards of 60% on issues ranging from taxes to health care to guns to reproductive freedom.

Another point of interest is that President Trump's issue-approvals are strongest (which is distinguishable from "strong") on Israel-related issues. The only two issues where Trump enjoys the approval of a majority of Jews is on "US-Israel relations" (51%) and recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights (52%). Moving the embassy to Jerusalem and "support for Israel annexing the West Bank" generate sharp divisions, with narrow pluralities favoring Trump here too. On annexation, in particular, this is one figure which I was genuinely surprised to see, as this seems to indicate far higher support for annexation in the Jewish community than I'd have predicted. That it's refracted through the lens of "do you approve of Donald Trump's performance on..." is unfortunate and creates a potential for blurring, but nonetheless it is a striking data point worth digging into more.

Nonetheless, even these numbers suggest that near wall-to-wall Jewish identification as "pro-Israel" yields immense diversity in opinions on specific issues. Jews are very much divided on questions like whether the embassy move was a good idea, and that division is one that largely is operating within those of us identifying as pro-Israel. This, too, should not be surprising for those of us in the know.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

When (If Ever) Will the Left Turn on Sanders?

Many folks, myself included, have observed that Bernie Sanders the actual politician often differs quite substantially from Bernie the mythological figure as imagined by some of his more passionate supporters (and detractors). "Socialism" label notwithstanding, Bernie's politics are relatively standard social democratic prescriptions, not far off from New Deal style liberalism. And his route to accomplishing his policy agenda likewise will generally flow through relatively normal democratic (and Democratic) processes.

Nonetheless, one advantage Bernie has had over his career is that he's seen as ideologically incorruptible. Bernie Sanders is someone who votes his conscience; he doesn't play the games of triangulation and log-rolling that regular politicians do. Some of this is an exaggeration, but some of it is real enough, and it's responsible for at least some of his more passionate base of support which see him as a pure actor among a field of sell-outs.

Of course, there's a reason why he's been able to maintain this pure stance. Since he's rarely been "the decider" or the pivotal vote, there have been very few decisions that fall directly on his head, and so he's rarely been forced to engage in the grubby work of compromise and negotiation that eventually captures any political actor who actually wants to get things done. He can afford to be a purist because others are putting in the hard-rock mining to actually make things happen. Even as he's risen to the position of U.S. Senator, Sanders has largely been able to follow Weber's "politics of conviction".

But as he moves from presidential contender to probable presidential nominee to, perhaps, President of the United States, this is going to become less and less tenable. Eventually, Weber teaches us, any truly empowered political actor will have to abandon the politics of pure conviction. And to the extent some of his wildest supporters have his back primarily because of the perception that he can transcend "regular" politics and maintain the politics of conviction forever, it raises the question: what happens when Sanders, inevitably, has to start playing the game? What happens when he has to actually do things that inevitably will involve compromise, and cooperation, and bargaining with various grubby constituencies beyond the base? What happens when Sanders is actually forced to be the man making the decision, and can't indulge in purity any longer?

The earliest time I can imagine this playing it out is when Sanders is choosing a Vice President. In general -- not always, but in general -- a VP nominee is chosen to shore up support among the wing of the party that did not win the nomination. So Sanders likely will face a lot of pressure to choose someone "establishment" flavored, as a gesture of unity, and will face even more pressure not to choose a loyal Berniecrat, as redundant. But how will Sanders supporters react if he picks, oh, let's say Kamala Harris, as a running mate? Will they be shocked at the betrayal -- the caving in to establishment forces? Or will they be trusting, willing to give him leeway and (finally, albeit one-sidedly) accepting the realities of political maneuvering? Or will he be held innocent, the victim of hostage-taking by a DNC that will do anything and everything to preserve the power of the old guard?

Maybe he can avoid this (maybe he can be pure once again, and select a down-the-line loyalist). But if he becomes President, these issues will only continue and will become harder to avoid. Change will never occur with the immediacy that one would hope, the bills that are passed will never be as clean as they were drawn up in the progressive caucus, administrative appointees won't always give advice or produce studies that say what one wants to hear. And when that happens, what will happen? Will it be assimilated as part of the costs of doing business in the highly complex, modern bureaucratic state? Or will be evidence that Bernie, too, ultimately sold out? Or will it show just how entrenched the deep state is against him -- Sanders did not fail us, he was betrayed from within.

I honestly don't know, and I can see things going any which way. There is, among at least some Sanders supporters, a toxic kool-aid making the rounds where Sanders cannot fail, he can only be failed. This story about Sanders supporters standing outside a Nevada Democratic Party official's house at 11 PM with a bullhorn railing about the inevitable impending corruption in the caucus is disturbing on a host of levels, but let's focus on how the ringleader responded to pleading by the Sanders campaign to knock it off:
“The Sanders campaign is run by the establishment,” she wrote on her Facebook page in response to some critiques of her nighttime demonstrations. “I can care less what Bernie’s staff thinks of me. They aren’t relevant to me or my race. I have seen screenshots of the way they treat Berners and it is absolutely not reflective of Bernie Sanders.”
Now the woman in question, Maria Estrada, is at the fringe of the fringe -- she's a raging antisemite who nonetheless received an Our Revolution endorsement to challenge the (Democratic) California Assembly speaker in 2018 (she's seeking a rematch, but it's unclear whether Our Revolution endorsed her again). But boy howdy is this some cult of personality business. With all due respect to Sanders' campaign staff, there's no reasonable argument that Sanders is more encouraging of ... let's call them "hardball" tactics from the activist base ... than are members of his staff. But no matter:  From Estrada's vantage point, Sanders cannot possibly deviate from the path of the true revolution -- and if he does, then he didn't, he was simply led astray by false prophets and establishment whisperers.

This isn't healthy. It would not be healthy if the movement Bernie leads decides he's betrayed it, and it's not healthy if the movement Bernie leads decides every setback is the result of insidious forces corrupting from within.

Bernie Sanders may well make a fine president. It's possible he will be a great president. But he is still going to be a president, within the same system and subject to the same political constraints as have all the occupants of the office before him. Donald Trump may be the president who has most aggressively resisted these strictures, and to the extent he can get away with it it's only because he doesn't care how many people he immiserates and lives he destroys along the way. If your goal is to build rather than destroy, to improve rather than decay, you don't have Trump's luxuries.

Most people who ask a question like "when will the left turn on Sanders" do so, I imagine, with a note of hope in voice -- when will they see the light? (a libertarian friend of my in-laws used to always ask my wife "are the youth turning on Obama yet?", convinced that any day now they'd realize that big government represented a bigger threat to their liberty than losing health insurance coverage). I do not ask this question with hope. I suspect that if the left turns on Sanders, it will be for the worst reasons. Convinced that it is only a failure of will that their dreams haven't yet been realized, they will infer from Sanders inability to the impossible that either he or his team were traitors all along, and that if we only purge enough blasphemers, the inevitable revolution will -- will -- happen. And as ugly as some of their attacks on "the DNC" and "the establishment" and Hillary and Obama and Perez and Wasserman-Schulz and ... (ever onward) have been, the fallout of that reckoning would be terrifying to witness.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The End of the Executive's Advantage

I've noticed something this cycle -- or at least I think I have -- that seems to augur a shift in some old presidential conventional wisdom.

The old CW was that Governors and other executive officials had an advantage running for President over Senators and Representatives, because the latter have a voting record one can inevitably comb through to cherry-pick something that sounds bad or controversial.

But this cycle, it seems that its elements of executive experience -- as a district attorney, attorney general, or mayor -- that has created the greatest points of vulnerability for aspiring Democratic candidates. The most damaging hits on Klobuchar and Harris, for instance, have not been Senate votes but rather conduct done as supervising government attorneys. Bloomberg and Buttigieg, of course, only have executive experience, and their programs and policies as mayor have haunted each of them (but especially Bloomberg) throughout the campaign. The fact that supervising executives can be tagged with buck-stops-here responsibility for the acts of subordinates (and often are legally required to sign off -- how ever notionally -- on policies that are in practice taken far below their level), makes it easy to find examples of dodgy or abusive behavior across an entire governmental bureaucracy (a legal argument here, a programmatic decision there) and tie them to the executive official.

I'm not entirely sure what is causing this shift. One possibility is that growing polarization means that politicians have largely given up on getting bills passed via compromise. Whereas in the past Senators and Representatives might have been willing to bite the bullet and vote for imperfect bills that muster bipartisan support by having something for everyone to love and to hate, now there is little incentive to ever vote for something that contains politically unpopular elements just to "get something done".

Another possibility is that actions that are especially within the ambit of executive officials -- most notably criminal justice -- have gone from politically "safe" (nobody ever lost an election by being too tough on crime) to politically precarious (we can now totally imagine folks losing election because they were too tough on crime).

Or maybe there is no so such shift and I'm making it up (or maybe it's a shift that exists in the primaries but will fade come the general). But it seems to me that in this primary, at least, we're seeing far fewer shots fired over this vote, and far more fired over that program. And it's maybe no accident that Senators (or, in Biden's case, former Senators) are dominating the remaining Democratic field (while nary a governor is to be seen). The conventional wisdom that voting records will sink long-standing Senators' presidential ambitions is looking pretty frail.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Bots and Nots in the Sanders Sib Community

Twitter protestations notwithstanding, I find it wholly plausible that Russian bots masquerading as Bernie supporters are the culprits behind some of the toxic online abuse that goes out under the pro-Bernie flag.

And contra some, I don't think that this means that the Russians are "backing Sanders" in any meaningful respect. This is a chaos play -- it's a way of sowing division; there's no implied commitment to any underlying policy preference. When Russian trolls simultaneously promoted both pro- and anti-Muslim rights rallies, it was not because they couldn't decide which side of the issue they fell on. The chaos was, and is, the point (although Sanders' backers could stand to reflect as to why his campaign represents such an alluring vector for sowing mistrust).

However. Being a Democrat who is under the age of 35, I know plenty of Bernie Sanders supporters. The majority of them are normal, pleasant people who are supporting their preferred candidate in normal, pleasant ways.

But I've certainly seen a contingent -- not a majority, but a vocal one -- of the Sanders supporters I know who do endorse or at least excuse the sort of abusive behavior and toxic conspiracy-mongering that Sanders himself has long repudiated. I know this culture is real, and not just a case of bots, because I see people who I know are real partake in it.

The recent story of the Bernie Sanders staffer whose private Twitter account was brimming with vicious, brutal, often misogynistic attacks on rival candidates provides a case in point. This was disgusting behavior, and the Sanders campaign to its credit immediately canned the staffer once it went public.

But many of Bernie's supporters, instead of taking the easy route of "wow, this was terrible stuff -- I'm glad he was fired!", instead elected to pile on the reporter for covering the story at all. The preferred objection -- and I saw this from multiple people who I know are real flesh-and-blood humans -- is that because the account was a private one, the staffer's remarks could not be harassment.

There are, to be sure, indications in the article that the staffer also might have been anonymously responsible for other instances of insults and invective that were made through public channels. But leave that aside. The "it's not harassment if it's a private channel" would be a pedantic objection under the best of circumstances -- yes, it's true that Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren themselves weren't in a position to see the tweets, but nobody is under any illusions as to how "private" messages of abuse circulated to campaign backers the vast majority of whose accounts are not private contributes to a culture of abuse and maltreatment.

It is normal, and not strange, for internet harassment campaigns to begin with and by nurtured by conversations on sites and fora where the vast majority of posts are not intended to be and likely never will be seen by the putative target. The reason that these conversations on reddit or 4chan or wherever nonetheless matter isn't because the objects of their hatred could theoretically read them. It's because of what they precipitate out -- "private" conversations where edgelording and abuse and brinksmanship are encouraged and cheered on become the fermentation ground from which the "public" harassment springs. Eventually, someone takes it both seriously and literally.

And even if none of that were the case, the apologia still boils down to "he was only privately spreading misogynistic abuse (to 4,000 of his closest friends)." Is that really the hill people want to die on?

It was frankly shocking how many real-life people I know who, when confronted with objectively atrocious, grotesque, hateful behavior by a Sanders staffer, responded by trying to pooh-pooh the importance of the issue because technically it wasn't "harassment". On that note, while the article juxtaposes the staffer's behavior with Sanders' condemnation of online harassment and clearly considers the two to be part of the same family (which they are), it generally describes the posts as "toxic" or "abuse". The second paragraph is indicative:
But the private Twitter account of a newly promoted campaign staffer indicates that despite his condemnation of online harassment, at least some of the Vermont senator’s most toxic support is coming from inside the house.
Perhaps it is fair to say that the article is implying that the staffer's behavior is also harassment. But the nitpicking effort to reframe the issue as about the technical distinction between "harassment" versus purely private abuse -- as if that debate, even if it were resolved against the reporter, would reveal the greater evil here -- was terrible, if illustrating, to witness. It reflects not just the abusive culture itself, but the wider circle wherein the abuse is apologized for, denied, minimized, or viewed as a smear -- a form of toxicity that, if not as visceral as the direct offenders, nonetheless is a necessary auxiliary to it.

Not every Sanders supporter is a "Sanders Sib". The vast majority are normal, reasonable people who support Sanders in normal, reasonable ways. But the fact of the matter is that -- augmented by bots or not -- the cadre that has earned the Sanders Sib label has largely come by its toxic reputation honestly. They're not being framed. They're not being held to unreasonable standards. They have their reputation because of what they -- flesh and blood humans -- do, and tolerate, and excuse. I know it's not bots, because I've seen it from people who I know in real life.

It won't stop me from voting for Sanders if he is the nominee in November (among other reasons, even if I didn't care about substantive policy at all and my criteria for voting was solely "which candidate has the most toxic base of internet support", Sanders still would be orders of magnitude better than Trump). But I'm not going to pretend like reality isn't there.