Friday, August 13, 2021

Nine Angry Dems

Nine moderate Democrats are trying to tank Joe Biden's strategy for passing his signature social policy package by demanding it be decoupled from the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Their reasons are not exactly compelling, and they have a lot less leverage than normal in circumstances like this because they don't have a cost-free "...or we walk" option (doing that would imperil the infrastructure bill they very much do support).

Notably, while this letter is identified with the party "moderates", it doesn't include some of the more high-profile members of the "moderate" wing of the party -- folks like Elissa Slotkin, Abigail Spanberger, or Lauren Underwood. Indeed, nine names is a rather infirm showing. So who are the Dems that did sign on? Are they "usual suspect" sorts, or surprises? Here's the list:
  • Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey
  • Carolyn Bourdeaux of Georgia
  • Filemon Vela of Texas
  • Jared Golden of Maine
  • Henry Cuellar of Texas
  • Vicente Gonzalez of Texas
  • Ed Case of Hawaii
  • Jim Costa of California
  • Kurt Schrader of Oregon
Rep. Gottheimer is at the helm of the "Problem Starters Solvers Caucus," and this sort of letter has his fingerprints all over it -- the only signatories who aren't part of the cause are Reps. Vela and Case (though again it's perhaps more notably how few PSC members signed (not even a third, by my count). Case has always been far too moderate for the deep blue hue of Hawaii; I don't know too much about Vela (or Rep. Gonzalez). Bourdeaux is a freshman congresswoman and a rare R-to-D House flip in 2020; she represents a swingy district but I still expect better. Reps. Golden and Schrader broke from the Democratic Caucus to vote against the American Rescue Plan Act because it was too generous to too many Americans -- they've already proven themselves capable of being chaos muppets. Rep. Cuellar is one of the worst Democrats in the House -- I sincerely hope he meets the same second-times-the-charm fate as Dan Lipinski and gets ousted by Jessica Cisneros in their rematch. Jim Costa likewise seems to be completely taking his seat for granted in California -- but hey, maybe he won't have a seat anymore after redistricting!

So basically, of all the people on this letter, the only one who maybe I care about listening to is Bourdeaux -- possibly Vela too, but I doubt it. In all, though, this is a stupid push on behalf of bad politics, and the Democratic leadership should tactfully but firmly tell them to suck on a root.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Sympathy for the Devil

I've never been (and still am not) a police abolitionist. I've also never felt any particular way about police officers -- neither lionizing them nor deploring them. If anything, my main feeling towards cops has been to be intimidated by them, though that sentiment is based more on certain idiosyncratic personal neuroses than any political instinct.

However, I've noticed recently an interesting trajectory in my own thoughts on the subject of policing that seems counter-intuitive, and so I wonder if it resonates with anyone else. To wit:

As I grow more sympathetic to police officers in controversial situations ("it's a hard job", "what would you have them do in this situation", etc.), I also grow more inclined toward abolitionism.

This certainly runs counter to the prevailing narrative, where abolitionism pairs up with ACAB views towards individual officers. So how come it's working differently for me?

As best I can tell, here's what's happening. When I read a story about egregious police misconduct -- the sort that would make me endorse the view "that guy's just a plain old bastard" --it doesn't on its own suggest a problem with policing as a concept. If the problem is that some people are bastards, the solution is to remove the bastards. When a nasty sort of person commits a murder in Oregon, that doesn't indicate that the very idea of "Oregon" is a failure. Bad people can do bad things in all sorts of systems without demonstrating that said systems are irredeemably flawed. Thinking of the problem in terms of individual moral failings leads me in a reformist, not abolitionist, direction -- ensuring that bad officers are punished, that systems of accountability are made more robust, that officers are given the proper training so that when they do bad things, it is obviously because they chose it rather than that they were thrown into a situation nobody told them how to handle, and so on. Even widespread instances of police misbehavior or ego tripping, such as the refusal to vaccinate, can resolve down to "then fire the bad actors en masse and replace them with better people--good riddance!"

But increasingly, one sees stories where policing injures, humiliates, even kills, vulnerable civilians in circumstances where I'm not sure the conduct can be reduced to or even characterized as a particular police officer being a plain old bastard. These are circumstances where I can imagine even someone who is, in some sense, perfectly public-spirited and who fully intends to serve and protect can nonetheless be the vector of terrible injustices upon innocent Americans. That's the hallmark of a systemic problem. It's one thing if a system generates injustices when bad people abuse it. It's another when a system generates injustice even when good people are doing their best.

The fact is, our system of policing regularly places officers in fraught situations with regular Americans; scenarios that are fast-moving, have murky expectations, and carry undertones of threats (especially given the absurd proliferation of firearms among the American populace). The police are simultaneously the violent arm of state enforcement and the enforcer of first resort for ordinary public disputes and missteps (imagine telling a Martian that the same agency has both "solve murders" and "stop drivers from turning right on red" in its portfolio!), and that will often put even decidedly non-bastard sorts in exceptionally difficult or precarious circumstances. That's not a problem that can be fixed by better training or better hiring, because it's not a matter of officers failing to do their jobs. It's a matter of the very contours of the job, as we've constructed it.

So yeah--that's where I'm moving. The more cases I see where a terrible injury inflicted on a civilian pairs up with a genuine "... but look at it from the officer's point of view", the more skeptical I grow of policing as a system, because if these problems persist even in cases where there isn't any obvious individual failing on the part of the officer then it suggests a problem that lies deeper than individual-level reforms could reach. It's very much not All Cops Are Bastards, and much more It Doesn't Matter If Any Cops Are Bastards. Do I stand alone on this?

Sunday, August 08, 2021

Hardcore Democratic Partisan Voters =/= Hardcore Progressive Voters

Imagine a legislative district that which was 100% comprised of Democratic voters -- and more specifically, partisan Democratic voters who are guaranteed to vote Democratic in the general election. There is no chance any of them would ever vote for a Republican -- they are committed Democratic partisans. In an open seat primary race, what intra-Democratic ideological position on a scale from left to center (i.e., from AOC to Kyrsten Sinema) would be most likely to win?

One might think that this is exactly the sort of district an AOC-type is most likely to win. Voters who are committed Democratic partisans would prefer the left-most candidate who is still within the broader spectrum of Democratic positions. The more firmly Democratic you are on the axis of partisanship, the more firmly progressive you are on the axis of ideology. Put differently, Democratic partisanship can be recast as "unwillingness to vote GOP". The further away you are from the GOP ideologically, the less likely you are to vote for them; so if we encounter a population that would never contemplate voting GOP, it stands to reason that the explanation why is that they are ideologically most distant from the GOP -- i.e., the most progressive voters. It's possible that such Democrats might vote strategically in races where electability is a concern -- choosing a more moderate option than they'd prefer in order to ensure they prevail in the general. But where electability is no barrier (as in our hypothetical 100% Democratic partisan district), their ideal-world preference would be the candidate representing the Democratic Party's left flank.

But there is actually a lot of evidence that this isn't necessarily true. Consider Chryl Laird and Ismail White's book Steadfast Democrats, seeking to explain why the African-American community so overwhelmingly affiliates with the Democratic Party -- circa 90% support for Democratic candidates in national elections. One answer would be "because they have overwhelmingly progressive political views". But, while it is likely the case that the Black American community nets out towards being more progressive than the White American community, there still are plenty of moderate and conservative African-American voters -- many if not most of whom also consistently vote Democratic. They are steadfast Democrats for reasons that don't map on perfectly to ideology.

For these voters, partisanship does not necessarily translate into preferring the most progressive available option even in a Democratic primary (so one is choosing among Democrats) where the winner is effectively guaranteed to win the general (so one's choice isn't an electability trade-off). Such voters are both consistent Democrats and might prefer a Joe Biden sort to a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren sort (or a Shontel Brown sort to a Nina Turner sort) on the basis of ideological preference. And (as committed partisans), such voters are especially likely to recoil from campaigns that appear to be antagonistic to the Democratic Party -- there's a reason why this was far and away the most powerful vector of attack for Brown against Turner, or Biden against Sanders for that matter.

To take a striking example: while Black voters in general are more likely to identify as "liberal" than White voters, Black Democrats are considerably less likely to identify as "liberal" than White Democrats are. 55% of White Democrats describe themselves as liberal, compared to just 29% of Black Democrats (almost identical to the 25% of Black Democrats who characterized themselves as conservative). How can this be? One way of thinking about it as follows: If you're a White liberal, you're almost certainly a Democrat, if you're a White conservative you're almost certainly a Republican, and if you're a White moderate you could be either (or a swing voter). By contrast, if you're a Black liberal, you're almost certainly a Democrat, if you're a Black moderate, you're still almost certainly a Democrat, and if you're a Black conservative, it's still pretty darn likely you're a Democrat. So if you're trying to appeal to the "steadfast Democratic" constituency of African-American voters, that means appealing to a cadre that is probably quite diverse in ideological orientation -- including liberals, moderates, and conservatives.

I think this analysis also tracks onto Jewish votes, though I'm less familiar with scholarship on the topic. Jews are famously also one of the most steadfast Democratic demographics behind African-Americans, regularly voting Democrat at rates around ~70%. And, while on net Jews again are certainly more liberal than the average American, Jewish Democrats don't necessarily cluster onto the left-edge of the Democratic Party. For Jews, too, the fact that we're an overwhelmingly Democratic voting bloc does not necessarily mean that the best way to appeal to us as a candidate is to be as progressive as possible  within the broad spectrum of Democratic Party opinion -- even in circumstances where "electability" is a non-issue.

It is notable to me how groups which seek to crack Jewish communal attachment to the Democratic Party often sound very similar in rhetoric to "Blexit" type organizations on the right. They'll typically speak of how they were "raised Democrat", how it was part of their "mother's milk", how for a long time it was "unthinkable" to even contemplate voting Republican -- all lines which speak to a connection between Jews and Democrats which is as much cultural as ideological. To be sure, such appeals will only have limited success given that there are only so many Jewish conservatives and because the "cultural" reasons which bind Jews and Democrats together remain quite solid. But it is notable nonetheless.

Why does this matter? Well, it suggests that the Democratic Party's base -- defined as its most loyal, committed supporters (of whom both African-American and Jewish voters certainly qualify) -- is more ideologically heterodox than one might think at first glance. They're certainly considerably more liberal than the country writ large, but it's not necessarily the case that they're thirsting for the most progressive possible option only to be thwarted by a party apparatus that takes them for granted. It's entirely possible, and I'd say likely, that their preferred Democrats are liberal Democrats who still maintain some distance from edge of the Democratic Party spectrum -- so not a Kyrsten Sinema, but not an AOC either. More like a nice, comfortable Chris Van Hollen.