Friday, June 26, 2015

Seventy Years Later

Six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. It's easy to imagine just how horrific that was at the time. People also can understand how it might have had effects in the immediate aftermath. But it is hard to process just how extensive the impact really was. So maybe this headline gives a clue: Global Jewish Population Nears Pre-Holocaust Level.

Seventy years later, we're almost back to where we were before Hitler's rise. Almost. Not there yet. That's how destructive the Holocaust was to the Jewish people.

History Will Be Heard

It's an interesting fact about history that nobody cares about process. If, say, the Constitution supplanted the Articles of Confederation while completely ignoring the latter's provision that it could only be amended via unanimous consent, that fact is lost on pretty much everyone. Likewise the "ratification" of the Reconstruction Amendments by southern states -- done at gunpoint following the civil war -- or for that matter the technical question about whether states had a right to secede from the union in the first place. There were many reputable legalistic critics of Brown v. Board when it came down in 1954, but today the importance of abolishing legal segregation completely overshadows any question over whether the decision was "technically" correct. This isn't to say that results are all that matters -- it is a good thing that we pay attention to process. We do care about it, and we're right to care about it. But it is a concern that fades very quickly once the decision has been made. For all the energy it takes up at the time, attention to process is not something that makes it into our historical memories.

It's interesting to think about this in terms of today's 5-4 decision striking down gay marriage bans. The dissenters -- Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito -- all have perfectly cohesive legalistic arguments on their side (though I'm ultimately not persuaded by any of them). But I am curious how they think history will view them. After the Court struck down parts of the Defense of Marriage Act, the Onion declared "Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, Alito Suddenly Realize They Will Be Villains In Oscar-Winning Movie One Day." That's almost certainly true. Obergefell, I predict, will be a Lawrence and not a Roe. Public opposition to same-sex marriage will rapidly disappear, and in another generation this decision will be seen as an obvious forward step for the cause of justice; the dissenters clearly retrograde and in the wrong. And I think each of the dissenters know that, and thus know that history will not treat them kindly. They are staring history down.

I say this neither as a form of condemnation nor laudation. It's just an interesting question. Is that a conscious choice? Are they okay with the sacrifice? What is it that motivates them to make it, knowing that there is no vindication waiting for them at the end? It is one thing, after all, to stand against society secure in the knowledge that "history will be heard." It is another to do so while knowing that history, too, will pile on yet further; consigning even the exculpatory reasons for your dissent to obscurity and irrelevancy.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The GOP's Helpy Selfie

My old debate friend turned Republican pollster rising star Kristen Soltis Anderson has a new book out: The Selfie Vote: Where Millennials Are Leading America (and How Republicans Can Keep Up). Soltis' speciality as a pollster is trying to connect the GOP with younger voters (Soltis is only a few years older than me), and this looks to be her book-length manifesto on the subject. I haven't read it, but according to her Facebook I can get a decent idea of her proposals from this review. And if that's anything to judge by (and of course, the standard disclaimer here is that some or all of these objections may be addressed in the book itself), the GOP may have problems in the coming years.

It would be unfair to Kristen to say that her proposals for attracting millennial votes is for the GOP to become more liberal. Most of the issues she identifies have unclear or mixed ideological valences (gay marriage is the notable and conceded exception). The problem, though, is that in many of the cases Anderson identifies it is far from certain that Republicans will be more likely to jump aboard her policy prescriptions than Democrats. Many of them, as the reviewer notes, "feel like sensible ideas that many politicians, not just Republicans, can get behind." That's a problem, since presumably to win over currently left-leaning voters they need to differentiate themselves from Democrats. For example, Soltis cites pervasive overregulation as an area where Republicans can win the allegiance of urban voters. A good example might be the recent Texas bill which removes licensing requirements for traditional African hairbraiders. That law was shepherded through the legislature by a Republican and signed by a Republican Governor. But it also passed the Texas House unanimously -- it doesn't differentiate Republicans and Democrats. Matt Yglesias, for example, has long made the progressive case for reducing licensing requirements as an anti-poverty measure. There's a perfectly cohesive conservative rationale for adopting Soltis' proposal here, but then, that's a perfectly cohesive liberal one too.

The other problem I see relates to the cultural bonds that, under my understanding of political psychology, do far more to channel our policy opinions than does any sort of comprehensive abstract political theory. Far more than any unified worldview, being liberal or conservative is often about liking certain types of people (and favoring laws which aid them) and disliking other types of people (and trying to contain or suppress them). For example, conservatives like farmers ("backbone of America"), rural and white suburban/exurban residents ("real Americans"), gun owners ("patriots"), and business owners ("captains of industry"). They dislike racial minorities ("the real racists"), immigrants ("taking our jobs!"), urban dwellers ("latte-sipping elitists"), and the poor ("takers"). Liberals run close to the reverse: they like racial minorities ("heirs to MLK"), immigrants ("pursuing the American dream"), urban dwellers ("urbane, sophisticated"), and the poor ("hard-working Americans"). They dislike rural folk ("hicks"), gun owners ("NRA nuts"), and big business owners ("robber barons"). If we take a topic like "deregulation", it isn't really the case that Republicans favor it and Democrats oppose it. Republicans are happy to regulate the hell out of food stamps, for example. Democrats favor other sorts of regulations (those which fall primarily on the heads of big businesses or gun owners). Ditto government intervention in the economy - conservatives are perfectly happy to do so to give preference to income earned through capital gains versus that earned through labor, or to subsidize corporations that they have favorable feelings towards.

The problem for Kristen's analysis is that these cultural affinities (or disaffinities) seem to run in the wrong direction for many of her proposals. I think Republicans can absolutely get behind Uber, but what are their feelings towards increased mass transit? There's a visceral aversion there, that really isn't accounted for based on policy. Likewise for going "soft on crime", particularly when tho community in question consists of poorer African-Americans. It's not that they can't adopt these positions, it just will require a lot more cognitive effort than I think it would take for liberals (who are more predisposed to favor these policies).

Basically, if I were a liberal strategist seeking to counter Kristen's book, my advice would be simple: don't be an idiot. You can try to regulate Uber's employment practices (urban folk like Subway and Target too, but we like them to pay their workers respectable wages), but don't ban it outright. Be attentive to the changing tides on crime and be willing to decriminalize low-level drug offenses and reduce overpolicing and "war on the poor" policies. Invest in walkable urban areas and mass transit options. These are all doable objectives; there is no reason why Democrats should ever find themselves out-flanked by Republicans on these issues.

Now to be sure, I hope that Republicans take Kristen's advice -- not because it is bad advice, but because most of her ideas sound like good ideas that will make America better, and I'd rather more people support them rather than fewer. But as a strategy for winning over millennials, I'm not convinced -- not because they're bad ideas, but because they're ideas that won't make the GOP a distinctively better choice than the Democratic party.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Van Hollen and Edwards Go To Baltimore

With the retirement of longtime legend Barbara Mikulski (D), Maryland is facing a true rarity: a competitive Senate race. Well, competitive on the Democratic primary side, and right now it pits Montgomery County-based Rep. Chris Van Hollen against her Prince George's County counterpart Rep. Donna Edwards. Since both represent the DC suburbs, both are looking to reach out into the other big MD Democratic hotspot -- Baltimore (incidentally, the elephant in the room for this race continues to be whether Baltimore-area Rep. Elijah Cummings will jump in. But so far it looks like the answer will be no). But reports seem to be that Van Hollen is making more inroads.

This doesn't really surprise me. Chris Van Hollen is an extraordinary campaigner -- he came to office with an upset win over a Kennedy in a Democratic primary, followed by knocking off a popular 8-term Republican incumbent in a GOP wave year (2002). Edwards, for her part, rose to prominence by primarying out ex-Rep. Albert Wynn -- which, while not nothing, is less impressive given that Wynn was basically an uninspired party boss type and way out of line with the views of his very liberal district. Since then, Edwards has maintained a relatively prickly relationship with a lot of her constituents and various powers-that-be. Van Hollen, by contrast, is well-liked amongst his colleagues and has experience and connections from his successful tenure as head of the DCCC.

Edwards' main strategy has been to present herself as the progressive hero in the race. But while her lefty-bona fides are strong, Van Hollen is certainly no blue dog either, and I think it will be tough to substantially outflank him from the left. Given that, and given Van Hollen's superior skills as a politician and fundraiser, I think that he'll be the decided favorite to win the primary.

Also, while we're on the subject of Maryland, best wishes to Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who was recently diagnosed with an advanced and aggressive form of cancer. Here's hoping for a speedy recovery.

Onward to France!

A Spanish town whose name translates to "Camp Kill Jews" has elected to make a change.
Instead, the town’s new name, Castrillo Mota de Judios, translates to “Jews’ Hill Camp,” which was actually the town’s old name before it was changed in 1627 to “Camp Kill Jews.”
I have to say I appreciate the history behind this. Also "Jews' Hill Camp" sounds like a location I'd find in Skyrim.

With momentum now on our side, perhaps we can persuade the French hamlet of "Death to Jews" to change its name as well.