Why it’s so hard for Republicans to disavow Trump (but they should do it anyways)

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It’s easy for those on one half of the political divide to call on the other side to abandon their terrible candidates. After all, you already disagree with the basic ideological commitments they represent! But for those who share a partisan affiliation, the issue is a lot more complicated.

Because at the end of the day, parties matter a whole lot more than individual candidates. Parties control the agenda, establish what’s possible, set the terms of political engagement. That’s especially true in Congress, where it’s incredibly difficult for individuals to make a significant difference. But it’s also true at the level of the presidency. There are differences between presidents, of course, but most of the day to day business of government is conducted by low level appointees, bureaucrats, and political professionals. Which means the consequences of a presidential election often stem primarily from the party name, and only (very) secondarily from the individual.

All of which is setup for me to say: I sympathize, really and truly, with Republicans who hate Trump but don’t want to vote for Clinton. Because for all of Trump’s flaws, irregularities, and violations of conservative orthodoxy, it’s quite clear that he would govern in more traditionally conservative ways than Clinton. He’d appoint more conservative Justices to the Supreme Court, he’d pursue significant tax cuts, he’d go after Obamacare, and so forth.

What’s more, his broad incompetence might in some ways prove to be a boon. He could stack the executive branch with cronies and sycophants, but would be more likely to just leave the boring day-to-day operations in the hands of professionals. And sure, he’d fight with a GOP Congress at times, but in many areas he simply wouldn’t care enough to bother. Which compares to Clinton, who would fight tooth and nail on small-bore issues, veto bills left and right, and generally make herself a pain in the collective congressional butt.

So, again, I get it. If you believe in the Republican agenda, it really IS reasonable to conclude that Trump would get you a lot more of what you want. And, under normal conditions, that’s a perfectly good reason to hold your nose and vote for the ‘lesser of two evils.’ In a normally-functioning system, party loyalty just matters more than individuals.

But Trump isn’t normal. He’s a walking disaster, in a way that exceeds the limits of traditional liberal/conservative evaluation. A Trump candidacy puts ‘issues’ on the table that used to transcend partisanship. For example, “the president shouldn’t be a sociopath” used to be an unstated position for both parties. A baseline assumption so obvious it didn’t need stating. But now, Trump has put that all into doubt. And Republicans have to ask themselves: am I so committed to the differentiated elements of partisan distinction (taxes and guns and affirmative action and so forth) that I’m willing to abandon those underlying beliefs?

I think the answer is obvious, and I think that’s precisely what President Obama is talking about when he says this election asks us to be patriots, to put our duty to the country ahead of our duty to our own beliefs. There is a real sacrifice here, but one that must be made.

Thinking about this, I’ve been trying to work from a position of empathy. Would I do the same if the situation were reversed? Would I be able to set aside my second-level values and vote against my own party? The answer is hell yes.

It’s hard to envision a ‘Democratic Trump,’ but let me give it a shot: Imagine an Alec Baldwin descended into caricature. He is angry, incoherent, violent. He lights fires and does everything short of inciting riots. Against money in politics, against Republicans, against everyone who disagrees with his populist message. And, let’s imagine, that he’s taken ‘criticism of Israel’ to an extreme point, one verging all-too-closely on outright anti-Semitism. Over the course of the campaign, his language has grown more and more unhinged, dictatorial, terrifying.

Meanwhile, the Republicans have nominated Mitt Romney. Or maybe Paul Ryan.

You’d better believe I’d vote for the Republican. Because some things transcend shared commitment to partisan values. A candidate who threatens to rip apart the core fabrics of our democracy is attacking my beliefs in a way that goes far beyond mere issue disagreement. The president is the most powerful human being on the planet. They absolutely must meet certain minimum qualifications.

Donald Trump cannot be allowed to become president. Not because his ideas are bad (although they are), but because no one so self-evidently incapable of understanding the responsibilities of such power should ever be allowed to wield it.

I started by saying that I understand why partisan affiliation is so strong, and why it’s so hard to break. But to the 20% of the country out there, who is horrified by Trump and who wishes you could win back the soul of your party, I urge you in the strongest terms I can find to take that step.

It’s asking a lot of you, but your country needs that sacrifice.

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The politics of legitimacy in the age of Hillary Clinton

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This weekend, Dara Lind at Vox wrote an excellent piece on the persistent left-wing critics of Hillary Clinton. Its hook is a question that is deceptively simple: “is there anything Hillary Clinton can do to redeem herself to you?”

The context for this question is a process of decaying political legitimacy – and the difficulty many people find in believing that ‘establishment’ politics has anything to offer. Such skepticism is nothing new, of course. American politics has long been defined by suspicion of institutions, lack of faith in elite representation, and paeans to the wisdom of the people. We inhabit a politics of dissent and protest, punctuated by periods of quietude. And given the broader context, it’s wholly unsurprising to observe a growing tumult of protest and critique.

Lind’s question, however, asks us to seriously consider the underlying political commitments of such critiques. If institutional legitimacy is weakening, what is the appropriate response? Is the goal to recuperate our institutions, or to hasten their destruction? To double down on de-legitimization, or to work toward their redemption?

The politics of getting to ‘yes’
Hillary Clinton clearly endorses the curative message. She is the candidate of the status quo, insofar as she represents faith that our politics can accommodate dissent by rectifying the injustices that spur this kind of doubt. And this is where Lind’s question becomes crucial. Clinton sees America as a cacophonous conversation of countless beliefs and creeds and races and identities, but a conversation in which everyone remains open to the goal of finding a way to get to ‘yes.’

Not an uncritical or irrevocable ‘yes.’ Not a ‘yes’ which silences dissent. The only requirement is a willingness to clearly articulate acceptable partial steps, and to bargain in good faith toward those results. This is what transforms delegitimization into critical collaboration. Which says ‘although we don’t agree on many things, we regard each other as shared participants in a political world.’ In effect, she is telling her critics that she will genuinely listen to their concerns. And she is asking them to do the same.

Indeed, if there is an essential motivating force behind the Clinton campaign (and more broadly, behind the modern Democratic Party writ large), it’s the belief that politics should be driven by the effort to include those who would like to be included. That motivation has built an inclusionary party, one grounded in tolerance and diversity, one housed in a big tent with a lot of ideological diversity.

This all helps to make sense of Clinton’s ongoing campaign to win over moderates and Republicans. Those efforts have engendered a lot of (understandable) anger from the left, who have no time for paeans to Reagan’s optimism, for patriotic chants, for Republican endorsements. And it has led many to express serious doubts about the sincerity of Clinton’s commitment to progressive politics, and her flexible political weathervane. If she is willing to speak the language of both sides, does she really believe anything herself?

Beyond ideology
These questions are not entirely unfair, but they risk becoming overdetermined, reducing all questions to their ideological coordinates on a straight line from left to right and thus stripping away the multidimensionality of politics. Missing from this account is a recognition that legitimacy creates a second valence of American politics, which does not simply map onto ideology but instead operates on a tangent to the right/left line.

Clinton’s appeals are grounded in the desire to work toward mutual understanding, and to seek viable terms of collaboration. Her appeals do come from a specific ideological coordinate, to be sure, but they are not wholly defined by that location. She values the process of getting people to ‘yes’ – and further values the system through which such collaboration is possible.

Here, I think her long-noted affiliations with the great Saul Alinsky are particularly notable. Alinsky argued forcefully for the necessity of radical action. And, more than that, he argued that those committed to the cause of justice must sometimes be blind to alternative logics. They must believe in their cause forcefully, at a level that exceeds the scope of reason. And yet, he insisted, such radical politics is not just compatible with compromise, compromise is its lifeblood:

If you start with nothing, demand 100 per cent, then compromise on 30 per cent, you’re 30 per cent ahead. A free and open society is an on-going conflict, interrupted periodically by compromises—which then become the start for the continuation of conflict, compromise, and on ad infinitum…A society devoid of compromise is totalitarian. If I had to define a free and open society in one word, the word would be ‘compromise.’

Clinton, of course, is no radical herself. And yet I believe she still regards the political terrain in the same essential terms. If she is no radical, she nevertheless seeks to sustain the function of political institutions capable of engaging with, and facilitating gains by, those who stand outside.

So, for those on the left who remain deeply skeptical of Clinton, this raises a crucial question: to engage in wholly ideological terms—seeing Clinton and the Democratic Party writ large as essentially untrustworthy—or to engage in the politics of collaboration? If they choose the former, they refuse her invitation to enter ‘the room where it happens,’ and thereby offer few incentives for resolution. Someone who cannot say ‘yes’ to any offer is an unwelcome participant in such conversations—not because their ideas are bad, but because they are working to undermine the very structure of decision-making.

The politics of radicalism and the politics of rejection
This is by no means an easy question. There are deep problems in our political order, inequalities that far exceed the limits of marginal tinkering, distrust that blooms all the brighter with each passing year of incremental change. Under those conditions, there is a real argument to be made against accommodation, and I take that argument tremendously seriously.

Nevertheless, I worry that these arguments risk obliterating the distinction between a politics of radicalism and a politics of rejection. Both seek to break the shackles of our imagination, refusing to regard the status quo as fixed, or the terms of engagement as intrinsically constrained. But they differ, in that the politics of rejection tends to dematerialize the experience of justice, seeing collaboration with violence as merely a step removed from its direct infliction, no less cruel in its underlying affect. Radical politics admits many shades of grey; rejectionist politics sees only heroes and villains (friends and enemies).

It’s important to really think through this difference. Not because one approach is ‘good’ and the other ‘bad’ in some objective sense. This is a difficult topic, and one where people of good faith and strong beliefs will find themselves in disagreement. And that is as it should be. A politics without dissent would not really be politics at all. So the goal isn’t to discourage dissent, but rather to find ways for it to be more powerfully and productively expressed. And that is something that requires serious self-reflection from all sides.

Conclusion: what are we talking about when we talk about politics?
My argument here speaks to the very heart of contemporary debates within liberalism. So in one sense, it is critically important. A failure to seriously consider the terms of our engagement risks fomenting further alienation and dispossession. At the same time, the stakes are also relatively low. Accepting the existence of differences here doesn’t require surrender or significant reconfiguration of ideological commitments—just a little bit more understanding and self-reflection.

For the ‘establishment,’ it is crucial to remain open to the legitimate concerns of protestors. Even if their commitments appear naïve or unrealistic, they are nevertheless genuinely felt and deserve engagement rather than derision. To regard protestors as illegitimate, and therefore worthy of dismissal, is to counteract the very logic under which institutional legitimacy itself is supposed to operate. The core premise of this mode of politics, after all, is its capacity to listen and take seriously the concerns of all, not just those who already agree.

Put simply, there is a powerful argument for the politics of collaboration, but such arguments are perpetually in danger of becoming hoist on their own petard. That some refuse to engage cannot become a justification for dismissiveness. The door must remain open, in the hope that these powerful ministers for justice might one day walk through. Or, as sometimes happens, to leave an escape route for those times when the drumbeat of justice beats so heavily that it shatters the foundations of normal politics (as, for example, happened in the case of slavery).

By the same token, it’s far too easy for those on the ‘protest’ side to stumble into a Janus-faced mode of critique: pitching critiques as collaborative, but persistently moving the goalposts about what meaningful accommodation really entails. This is dangerous because it tends to provoke further alienation on both sides—especially since this sort of double-dealing is very rarely intentional. That is: those who engage it almost never regard themselves as negotiating in bad faith. But in practice it ends this way, because the process was engaged from a premise of distrust where ideologically distant parties are seen as antagonists who must be tricked or bullied into accession. When such efforts fail (as they inevitably must), future engagement is unlikely. If concessions win no points and earn no good will, they are unlikely to be repeated.

This means that engagement, if it is to be of any use at all, requires serious consideration of underlying expectations and demands. It does not require backing down on ideological commitments, but does depend on the willingness to regard ideological contestation as taking place within a shared universe of (potential) understanding and engagement. It means, like Alinsky, seeing a 30% victory as a real victory, the only sort of victory usually available, and thus worth getting your hands dirty to achieve. And it means having faith that those with whom you disagree may nevertheless become agents for, rather than against, justice.

All resolutions will inevitably be unsatisfactory, diluted. It cannot satiate the demands of justice and will not quell dissent. But it does offer the potential for common cause. Not agreement, but productive conflict. And grounded in a shared world, if not always in shared values.

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Tactics are principles: on ‘voting your conscience’

Every four years, the same conversation repeats itself: whether to vote tactically, for the ‘lesser evil,’ for the person who doesn’t represent your values but can at least be a bulwark against someone even worse. You saw this at the RNC, with Ted Cruz pointedly saying ‘vote your conscience,’ rather than endorsing Trump. You see it on the left, with a lot of speculation about Jill Stein and the Green Party.

But a missing element from many of these conversations is a precise specification of what it actually means to ‘vote your conscience’ and why it is accepted that tactics and conscience are in contradiction. This is a serious lacuna, and one with real consequences for the way in which we think about politics.

To illustrate the point, let me start by saying that I’ll be voting for Hillary Clinton. Sure, I disagree with her on a fair number of policy questions, and am far closer to the Green Party’s platform. But platforms aren’t the only representation of ‘values.’

Underneath the policy choices are a broader set of principles that are at least equally important. For me, those include values like: respect, empathy, nuance, commitment, self-sacrifice, love, compassion, intelligence, judgment.

Does Hillary Clinton perfectly align with my values on all these fronts? Of course not. But Jill Stein sure doesn’t either.

Stein’s tendency to regard monumental differences as rounding errors might make her a decent theoretical physicist, but suggests a kind of willful ignorance to facts that would be catastrophic in a president. Her inability to grasp the *reasons* for third party marginalization suggests a total lack of familiarity with the text and history of the US Constitution. And her insistence that the consequences of all actions (a quixotic third party campaign, the anti-vax movement, etc.) must be sublimated beneath an all-encompassing critique of capital suggests a mind uninterested in nuance, and untethered from a complicated world where few choices are purely good or purely evil.

In fact (on these points at least), I might go so far as to say that there’s barely a ‘dime’s worth of difference’ between her and Trump.

Others may disagree with this characterization, and that’s fine. You may regard Stein’s tactical assessment as reasonable, or regard Clinton’s political commitments as so extreme as to push her beyond the pale. But these are not ‘principles’ in some abstract, hermetically-sealed sense. They are differing judgments about the balance between motive and consequence, differing assessments about how to negotiate with evil.

In a universe defined by entropy, every choice exposes us to loss. We build pockets of stability, systems to sustain us. We engage our creative spirits to construct liveable worlds to share with one another. But it’s always against a backdrop of chaos. There are no decisions without risk, no acts so pure that they inflict no pain, no conscience that is fully clean. There is only the question of how we learn to live with the evil that we produce, how we try to minimize it, what meaning we can give to the sacrifices we are forced to undertake.

This is not a flaw of our electoral system; it’s a feature of the human condition.

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50 songs for 50 states: Michigan

There are, of course, a ton of great songs about Michigan. And in another world, I might have been writing about Motown or 8 Mile or something along those lines. But we don’t live in that world; we live in Sufjan’s world. So the only real question I had was: which Sufjan song will top the list?

And the answer has to be this one. It’s quite simply one of the most beautiful and haunting songs ever created. Unlike some of the other highlights on the record, this one wears its Michiganness pretty lightly—only a quick name check of Paradise—but the heart shines through. The feelings are universal, quite literally so given the biblical implications, but they are also utterly specific. This isn’t a song about the abstraction of love or devotion. It’s about the intensely specific way that those feelings express themselves. The nation loses a soldier, but to the little girl in Ypsilanti that just means that her father will never be coming home again. The world loses its savior, and then finds him again, but to the grieving widow in Paradise, redemption isn’t just an idea; it’s a life boat in a stormy sea.

sufjan michigan

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On Frederick Douglass and the meaning of July Fourth

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It’s never a bad idea to spend some time with Frederick Douglass, and I’m taking the opportunity today to remind myself of his brilliance by re-reading his speech on The Meaning of July Fourth to the Negro.

It’s a blistering speech, full of righteous anger and scorn for those who would seek to dodge or dissemble.  But it’s also a speech full of wonder and hope. It affirms the text of the constitution against those who seek to justify the injustices they render. It affirms the message and not the men. It’s important not to lose sight of both of these elements. And to recognize the bracing form in which they are blended together.

Douglass begins with a traditional hailing of the Founding Fathers, of the great dream of the nation, of the wonder that such a thing could have been achieved. But then, he turns back onto the audience, breaks the fourth wall, and asks them directly:

Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

But such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common.-The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?

One can imagine the reactions of his Rochester audience on that day. To fancy yourself enlightened and fair–asking this great man to come and speak–only to have these words hurled back in your face. To find yourself an object of scorn and disgust, grouped together with the slave owners and overseers of the south.

And Douglass certainly anticipates that response. He continues:

But I fancy I hear some one of my audience say, “It is just in this circumstance that you and your brother abolitionists fail to make a favorable impression on the public mind. Would you argue more, and denounce less; would you persuade more, and rebuke less; your cause would be much more likely to succeed.”

For Douglass, there is nothing more infuriating than such equivocations.  Particularly on a day dedicated to the celebration of the very phrase: “we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.”

The hypocrisy is stunning, the rage it induces overwhelming, the pain indescribable. All of the kind words he first issued now taste like ash. A reminder of our sins, of our unwillingness to act upon those simple moral truths.

And yet, after enumerating these sins in excruciating detail, Douglass winds his way backward again. At the conclusion to the speech, he finds himself once again enunciating the promise of America. And once again glorifying those very documents he has now spent so long excoriating.

Look to the Constitution, he says, and you’ll find no defense of slavery. Look to the Declaration, and you’ll find no denial of humanity. In these emblems of our nation, the slave is citizen as much as any other.

And here, amidst all the rubble, he identifies an ember of hope: “Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country.”

With this, he holds out a branch to his audience. As if a drowning man were to hold out a branch to those safe and secure on dry land. But he is not asking them to bring him up to land, as they might have imagined when he began the speech. Instead, he is calling on them to grab hold of the branch and be pulled down together. Enter the darkest and stormiest waters, acknowledge the incalculable suffering all around us, bear that pain on your own backs, and feel the urgency of its end.

And with that, he concludes, in terms that felt eerily resonant for us and our political moment today:

“No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable…The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet. The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved. The fiat of the Almighty, “Let there be Light,” has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light.”

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A win on abortion rights – but what comes next?

For the first time in almost 25 years, the Supreme Court has encountered an abortion restriction that goes too far.

In Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the Court found that Texas’s regulations constituted an ‘undue burden’ and therefore violated the constitutionally-protected right for women to obtain an abortion. This is a big deal, but also a telling indication of just how close we had come to the edge.

If the Texas laws had been upheld, we would have effectively entered the twilight stages of Roe v. Wade – with abortion technically remaining a protected right, but subject to such a dense thicket of state regulations as to be effectively unusable in significant sections of the country.

That didn’t happen, and that’s important. But this isn’t anything like the last summer, when the Court ended their term by establishing the right to marriage equality—an unvarnished win, at least on the narrow question of marriage. This year, the narrowness of the victory serves as an indication of just how restricted abortion access has become in this country.

While those with money, and those living in the big coastal cities of blue states, are generally able to exercise their reproductive rights with (comparatively) little difficulty, many others are not so lucky. The Court has now ruled against the most egregious laws—designed to effectively shut down all abortion clinics—but said nothing about a wide range of other restrictive statutes, which have closed plenty of clinics themselves, impose a variety of humiliations on those seeking abortions, and make it all-but-impossible for those with limited resources to exercise their rights.

These include: mandatory waiting periods, ‘informed consent’ requirements (such as the transvaginal ultrasound laws), requirements of parental involvement, weak judicial bypass options, building code regulations, etc. Each of these is designed to discourage or limit the ability of women to access abortions.

And beyond such laws, there is another important restriction: the simple reality of cost. While abortion isn’t a particularly expensive procedure, it also isn’t free. And many states prohibit Medicaid funding going toward the procedure, putting it beyond the reach of precisely those who may need it the most.

So yes, the decision today was an important victory. But it’s only a small one. And at the end of the day, it’s unreasonable to expect a whole lot more from the Supreme Court. Absent significant changes in the composition of the Court, the best we can hope for from it is to serve as a backstop, preventing the sort of wholesale restrictions at stake in Whole Woman’s Health.

Real progress on reproductive rights, therefore, depends on positive action in the political realm. There are three key steps here.

  1. Repeal the Hyde Amendment, the law which has prohibited federal funds from paying for abortions.
  2. Appoint more liberal judges to the Court. The result today was a 5-3, but this is the first time in decades that Anthony Kennedy found an abortion restriction that went too far, so it would be foolish to count on his vote in any future cases.
  3. Win back state legislatures. This is where all the action is in abortion restrictions. Republican control of state government allows them to pass a wide raft of restrictions, effectively testing the resolve and attentiveness of the federal judiciary.

There’s also a fourth, and far more abstract step: persuade the American people to move left on abortion. Here, though, it’s worth recognizing just how stable public opinion on this question has been. For all the battles, for all the arguments, for all the vituperative conflicts, the American voters effectively haven’t budged for decades.

That said, you don’t need a sea change in public opinion to shift the margins on abortion access. You just need to win more of the smaller, day-to-day battles at the margins. The public is broadly in favor of legal-but-restricted abortion, but they don’t pay that much attention to the details. Which means this is the sort of area where grandiloquent speeches will accomplish little, but the slow grind of political maneuvering can make a big difference.

In the long run, changing minds is crucial. But that has to be supplemented by a near term strategy of winning small fights that run below the radar of national politics.

And, not to belabor the point too much, but…winning these battles depends heavily on voting for Hillary Clinton (who is campaigning on a repeal of the Hyde Amendment), and for other Democrats.

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50 songs for 50 states: Massachusetts


It’s hard to turn down “Roadrunner.” And I do love “They Came to Boston” by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, particularly for the way it captures the strange mix of cultures that make up Boston. And speaking of that weird mash of cultures, I also gave some thought to Vampire Weekend, who give a slightly less blue collar perspective. All great choices, but never in serious contention.

There were two other songs that I really wanted to go with but couldn’t quite justify. The first is James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James.” It’s my favorite song of his, largely for that second verse, which hits me right in the feels in a way very few songs have ever managed. But for all that it’s grounded in the transit of the Berkshires, it isn’t quite a song about the state, if you know what I mean.

The second is “M.T.A.” by The Kingston Trio. This one plucks a special heartstring for me, since my family used to spend many a car ride listening to the Kingston Trio when I was a kid, and we particularly loved singing along to this one, lamenting poor Charlie stuck on the MTA. And it’s also a great song because it represents a previous era in political campaigns. Songs like these were the social media technology of the era, and there’s something wonderfully quaint about the whole thing.

Still, at the end of the day, I had to go with the Standells. There’s just something perfectly Boston about the love the city has for a song that extolls all of its worst features. And, of course, “Dirty Water” has become a key symbol of the Boston sports landscape. And, for me at least, the heart and soul of Massachusetts is the Red Sox. Their decades of futility. The heartbreak and the pain. Buckner. The ever-growing chip on the shoulder directed southward toward the hated Yankees. Fenway. And, very much tied into all of that: this song.

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Why I’m voting for Hillary Clinton in the California primary

tennis court oath

I’ve spent most of the Democratic primary in a genuinely unfamiliar position: that of the undecided voter. On the one hand, I mostly agree with Sanders on policy. It’s been incredibly exciting to see a candidate pushing hard on things like income inequality, global warming, and an overhaul to health care. On the other hand, I’m a great believer in the importance of competence. And Hillary Clinton strikes me as a very competent person, who I think would mostly pursue policies with which I agree.

For most of the campaign, I’ve expected to vote for Sanders. Mostly because it felt like the symbolic commitment to ideological change was significantly more important than the symbolic commitment to competence

But there’s a third factor, one which has increasingly grown worrisome to me, and which has finally pushed me in the other direction. Put simply: I believe that the normal operations of politics (where people disagree but still find a way to live with each other) are the necessary background against which any further progress can be made. And, increasingly, the Sanders campaign is operating in direct opposition to that principle. And this is a big deal for me.

To isolate this point a little better, let’s look at the recent events in Nevada. And then read the Sanders campaign response. Call me crazy, but as I take that in, I smell a tiny whiff of Robespierre on the breeze.

I recognize this is a fraught analogy, but honestly I think it conveys something significant. The Sanders campaign increasingly see themselves as the only true democrats left. And their faith in this status leads them to grab hold of the mantle: to assert an incorruptible status, which allows them to ignore the normal limitations of democratic norms. The fact that millions more people have voted for Clinton is irrelevant. Those people were voting for the wrong reasons, or they represent the wrong kind of values, or they’ve been duped by a corrupt system. And so, because the Sanders cause is just, any rules which limit the power of his supporters are, ipso facto, undemocratic. The game is simple. It’s us (the real democrats) and them (the Democratic ‘establishment’). Those identities are all that matters; the individual questions are fully sublimated.

I don’t want to overstate the case here.  Like I said, I like Sanders, and his campaign on the whole. And I certainly don’t mean to say that they are responsible for the worst behavior of a few supporters. But they are responsible for the cultivating a general politics of grievance. One that tells people ‘if you don’t get the result you want, it’s because the system is broken.’ And which tells people to treat ‘fairness’ as simply a synonym of ‘the result I want.’

But a fundamental part of believing in democracy is the ability to accept that sometimes the other side wins. You don’t have to like that outcome, but you do have to accept it. And, further, you have to acknowledge that this grants them the right and responsibility to play a role in making policy.

The longer this primary progresses, the more that the Sanders camp is directly attacking that premise. And that really, genuinely worries me. It’s a corrosive way of thinking about politics, and one which is antithetical to the world Sanders should be representing.

Because, at a certain basic level, the viability of government itself depends on the citizenry’s faith in its ability to generate fair outcomes. And if we lose faith in the very idea that politics can be done through our existing institutions, we invite in a far bigger wave than anyone can control.

In a world where one half of our political spectrum has give itself fully over to the frenzy of anti-institutionalist, anti-political, anger-driven politics, I think it’s all the more important to stand against those values, rather than trying to equally embody them.

Yes, this sometimes means holding our nose and working for things that are less than ideal. But this is one of the prices we pay for living in a world where the rule of law holds firms, where political norms restrain our worst impulses, where faith in the system helps keep our worst demons at the margins of political life, and where people find some reason to believe that government might actually work in their interest.

If the Sanders campaign truly wants to stand for a revolutionary politics, I’m sure many of my more radical friends on the left will be delighted. And perhaps it’s necessary. I’m certainly under no illusions about the level of justice within our existing system. So maybe a true break is necessary.

But I’m not ready to give up on politics just yet. And even if I were, I’d want to support someone genuinely making the case for revolution, not the hide-and-seek game the Sanders campaign is currently playing. This kind of oversimplification–which capitalizes on peoples’ frustration while simultaneously ramping up their sense of nihilism about the viability of institutional response–strikes me as  being closer to the problem than the solution.

Whether this problem outweighs all the good that Sanders brings, I don’t know. I certainly don’t begrudge anyone else making a different decision. But for me, this is the right call.

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Should Clinton try to win over disaffected Republicans?

clinton

Hillary Clinton wants Republicans to vote for her. This probably isn’t a controversial statement, but if there was any doubt, you only need to look to her first big ad, which went out of its way to use Republican voices to attack Trump. She clearly sees a path to victory whereby the Democratic base is supplemented by a significant slice of Republican moderates who simply can’t bring themselves to vote for Trump.

For obvious and understandable reasons, many on the left are leery. They see Clinton already moving right, before Sanders is even out of the race, and anticipate a general election waged exclusively on Republican terms.

A recent piece from the New York Times seems to confirm this narrative, arguing that Clinton has made a “striking turn” away from her efforts in the primary to mobilize progressive and labor unions. The piece suggests that Clinton is confident the threat of Trump will be enough to mobilize her base, so she can focus her attention on Republican moderates.

But I think it’s worth being clear about what precisely is going on here. Because if you read that article closely, you’ll be hard-pressed to identify any real movement. Sure, she’s marginally shifting her rhetorical focus, in particular trying to walk back the inartful ‘we’re going to put coal out of business’ statement. But that’s all marketing gloss. Look deeper and there’s no policy changes on offer.

And this is mostly as it should be. Clinton can quite reasonably portray herself as a candidate deserving of Republican support, without this necessarily constituting a betrayal of progressive values.  It just requires putting the case in front of those voters that they (along with the rest of America) will be better off under a Clinton presidency. An argument that, for example, Bernie Sanders certainly has been making as well.

I don’t mean to say, of course, that there’s no reason for concern here. There absolutely is. I just want to be clear about what sorts of efforts we should encourage, and where we should remain wary.

What Clinton should do

Trump’s nomination gives Clinton a powerful argument for her arsenal, one which emphasizes the simple value of competence and commitment to good governance. This argument can acknowledge a persistent ideological gulf, while still encouraging people to recognize a shared commitment to the continued viability of political institutions and baseline political norms.

This argument contains two parts. First, and most simply, she’s saying “vote for Hillary because she’ll keep the lights on and the economy afloat.”  Partisan filters will prevent a lot of people from believing it, but some of the stauncher #NeverTrump folks will be quite vulnerable to re-considering just how plausible they really find the ‘Clinton will destroy America’ claims, now that they’re framed against the dumpster fire that is Team Trump.

The second part of the argument is more abstract, but also more important. Quite simply, it’s an invitation to reaffirm the value of politics itself. To vote for Clinton, she can argue, is to vote for a world where the other side’s opinions will be considered, where there is room to play a role in policy if you want it, where anyone who wants to fix a problem is at least given a seat at the table.

While the impulse of the Republican Party has increasingly been toward extremist delegitimization of politics, it’s quite possible that many moderate Republican voters might be ready to reconsider the wisdom of that approach. They might well see real value in a return to ‘normal’ politics, where people can disagree but still find a way to get some things done.  In fact, Clinton will be able to quite credibly argue that many Republicans will find an ear more willing to listen to their concerns with her in charge than with her opponent.

What Clinton shouldn’t do

All of that said, there is a clear limit to the effectiveness of these arguments. By portraying herself as reasonable, willing to negotiate, concerned primarily with keeping our institutions working, she’ll reduce the anxiety of some in the center, and bring them in from the cold.  But this sort of thing can only take you so far.

And it’s crucial to not let ‘openness to compromise’ turn into appeasement. Olive branches to Republicans have their value, but these should not be policy concessions, or as new baselines for negotiation. This is a mistake that Obama made all too often during his presidency.

And she especially should not shift the frames of the Democratic agenda.  In the primary, she mostly drafted off Sanders, letting him do the work to make the positive case for progressive politics. But she can’t rely on that anymore. She needs to affirmatively state her position now.  Make a positive pitch, one which is framed to everyone, not just to Republicans, and which grounds itself in the populist, progressive vision of a government working for the people, not for the elites.

She doesn’t have Sanders’ reservoir of authenticity here, and so will be skating on thin ice. Which means she needs to be as clear and aggressive in making these points as possible. No triangulation, no obfuscation. Tell people how government can help them, how she’s going to rein in the excesses of our financial industry, how she’s going to protect the environment, how she’s going to revitalize the middle class. Do so forcefully and without apology.

The key is to simultaneously work to convince the center-right that these objectives aren’t antithetical to their vision of America, that there is room in this agenda for positive-sum games that let everyone win, and that the basic structures of normal politics under a competent president (even one broadly pursuing an agenda they detest) will serve them far better than the chaos of Trump’s America.

What this election is really about

This election offers a rare chance. Clinton can plausibly make the case to even those on the far right that everyone will be better off under her presidency…even if you radically disagree with her on most ideological issues. Trump is such a bad candidate that she might be able to dislodge the firmness of partisan assessments of comparative advantage, and convince at least some Republicans that it’s better to get five loaves under her (even if Democrats get ten) than it would be to get one maggot-filled loaf from Trump.

Given this opportunity, it would be madness for her not to try and win over some Republican votes. The real question isn’t whether she should try to make the case; it’s how the case gets made, and whether the left will hold her accountable when she drifts too far to the center.

That is an important role, and one informed by the general wariness felt by many progressives toward Clinton. They don’t have faith in her motives, and for good reasons. But I remain hopeful that Clinton’s campaign will frame its appeals to the center against a larger background of broadly progressive commitments. Maybe she won’t. She might run a campaign bereft of real policy commitments, grounded exclusively in convincing people to vote against the other guy. And if she does, progressives will rightly be furious. But until we see real evidence of that turn, I think there is still room for some optimism.

 

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Don’t trust those polls – Bernie Sanders and the general election

(Erikson and Wlezien, The Timeline of Presidential Elections)

(Erikson and Wlezien, The Timeline of Presidential Elections)

In poll after poll, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders come out strongly ahead of Donald Trump. But Sanders is almost always further ahead.  And while this is interesting, it tells us essentially nothing about how Sanders would actually fare in a general election.

I’ll start by noting that there’s a decent amount of research on the question of general election polling, which mostly tells us that polls this far out are at best weakly indicative of future results. The reality is that, outside of highly mobilized partisans, most people simply haven’t thought that much about the campaign.

Generally, the historical record tells us that polls begin to stabilize a bit around 200 days out (right about where we are now). That’s likely because this is the time where the primaries are finished, and people start to focus on the upcoming race.  That’s important not just because it intensifies attention and focus.  The next big inflection point is late summer, after the conventions. Once you get that far, polls tend to get become quite trustworthy.

It’s plausible that 2016 will end up being a lot more stable, since the candidates are already exceptionally well known and people have likely reached settled opinions about both of them. But still, the general rule remains true: the vast majority of Americans simply haven’t put any meaningful time into deciding who they want to vote for.

None of this is to say that these polls contain zero information. They do tell us things. It’s just that the things they tell us have to be understood in context.  And that context tells us that there are two big reasons to think that Sanders’ numbers are soft.

First, he hasn’t been attacked. Sure, Clinton has been running against him, and I’m sure many Sanders supporters have felt under attack. But her campaign has been notable for being almost fanatically defensive. Her technique has been to agree with his premises, hit back a little on guns and on lack of attention to detail, and then talk about her strengths. That looks nothing like the barrage of attacks a general election would bring on.

To be clear, Sanders has won a lot of support for good reasons. He is a smart guy, passionate, and clearly very genuine. People appreciate all those things, and rightly so. He’s also pushing for a lot of things that people care a lot about. Improving the condition of the poor and middle class, limiting the influence of money and special interests, etc. These things are also very popular.

But let’s not kid ourselves. The abstract popularity of an idea is very different from popularity in the trenches. You don’t have to look very hard to find evidence of exceptionally popular things going up in flames as soon as they get scrutinized. 90% of Americans wanted ‘background checks,’ but once an actual proposal was on the table (and was being attacked), that support quickly dissipated. Many people may like your principle, but will turn quickly away as soon as the rubber meets the road. And even specific to Sanders supporters, polling indicates that lots of people would be far less willing to support his agenda once they find out the details.

It’s certainly possible (albeit improbable) that Sanders would continue to poll as well once he’s been subjected to a fusillade of Republican attacks. But those attacks haven’t happened yet (and never will), so current polling simply can’t tell us how things would look in that hypothetical world.

What’s more, the problem actually runs deeper. Even if the Sanders agenda and persona could withstand the content of these attacks, it would still run into the second fundamental problem: politicians grow more unpopular the closer they get to becoming president.

Right now, one of Sanders’ key polling advantages is the fact that he’s never been especially close to winning the nomination. This may sound paradoxical, but it’s a very real effect. The American public is significantly biased against those who are perceived as internal to the partisan political bickerfest.  And, correspondingly, it valorizes those who appear tangential to those fights, who represent our ‘better’ politics. Sanders is currently drafting on that effect.

But there is one surefire way to lose this mantle: become the nominee. This is because the lauding of ‘apolitical’ figures is only tangentially about those figures as such. It’s far more to do with drawing comparisons against those who are currently trained in your sights. The result is that insurgent politicians get all the credit and very little of the flak. They stand for an alternative to the stuff people hate, rather than being a representative of it. But once the politician is in the midst of the political slog, every theoretical negative (which would be easily brushed aside before) is accentuated.

Want evidence? Check out Hillary Clinton’s approval ratings from 2010-2012.

+30!

This is a period when she was lauded for being above the fray, competent, capable. And above all: for not being Barack Obama. But once she began running for president again, her support plummeted. Not because of any change in her; because of a change in her circumstance.

More evidence: George W. Bush. His approval ratings were in the 70s in the fall of 1999. A year later, in the midst of a general election campaign, they had fallen 20 points. George HW Bush, during a bruising fight to retain the presidency, saw approval ratings fell into the 30s in October of 1992. Two months later, they had jumped into the high 60s. Mitt Romney was +13 in February of 2012, unfavorable on election day.

John McCain is maybe the closest analog to Sanders. He managed to remain quite popular, even with the partisan filter. Still, his support dropped from +20 in the early summer of 2008 to +6 by the election.  For a lot of people, he stopped being ‘John McCain, war hero and great guy’ and became ‘John McCain, politician.’

The point of all this is not that Sanders is terrible, or that he’d have been a disaster, or anything like that. Facing Trump, I think he’d have been a perfectly solid candidate. While the effects I’m describing are real, they aren’t 100% dispositive. The underlying strengths of Sanders wouldn’t disappear. He would likely have much higher personal favorability ratings than (for example) Hillary Clinton currently has. And while his agenda would suffer quite a few sustained attacks, having that debate might well be worth it.

But at the end of the day, whether Sanders would be a strong general election candidate is almost exclusively a question for punditry, not analytics. The polls just do not produce useful information about this question, no matter how much we might want them to. They simply can’t tell us how people would have thought about Sanders as a general election candidate, because they are snapshots from a world where he isn’t one.

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