Clinton is the nominee, but it’s Bernie’s party

The writing has been on the wall for quite some time, but tonight we received final confirmation: Hillary Clinton is going to be the Democratic nominee. But the Democratic Party that she’s going to represent is a very different entity from the one that existed when she started this campaign.

Put simply: Clinton is the nominee, but it’s Bernie’s party that she’ll be leading.

I’m sure that will taste bittersweet to Sanders and his supporters, who have found an extraordinary fight over the last nine months. But it’s a real and important victory.

First things first: the bad news. It was already exceedingly unlikely that he could make up the delegate deficit, but if there was any chance of it happening, he needed to at least hold serve tonight. And that, most definitely, didn’t happen. As I’m writing this, only about half of the 800 delegates at stake tonight have been allocated. But if my back of the envelope calculations are reasonable, it looks like Clinton will finish the night having expanded her lead by another 150 delegates. With half the delegates already allocated, that means Sanders would likely need to win the remaining votes by something close to an 18 point margin. And there’s just no plausible way that can happen. He already only had a couple outs left, and those are officially gone now.

That said, this is only the end of one part of the campaign. And it’s worth noting that the next month or so is very favorable to Sanders. So not only do I think he can reasonably continue on, I absolutely think he should. This campaign has been all about giving voice to those who aren’t being heard, and that absolutely can continue – and will get a boost from the range of ‘Sanders back on the upswing’ stories that will inevitably emerge. That’s a real opportunity. But it’s one that needs to be seized for a broader effect than simply pursuing a nomination. So I hope that Sanders and his team are putting some real thought into what their going to do with all this support.

For one thing, there are lot of downticket races that could really use some excitement and mobilization by the left. But beyond that, there’s the simple fact that although Clinton is now the presumptive nominee, she remains vulnerable to the concerns that Sanders has raised this whole cycle. While she will have to (and should) tack back somewhat for the general election, it’s worth noting just how far to the left she’s been dragged by this primary campaign. And it’s very much within the power of Sanders and his supporters to hold the line on all those promises.

As of right now, there are three leaders of the Democratic Party: Clinton, Obama, and Sanders. And while the other two are far closer to the office of the presidency, in some ways he’s just as powerful as they. Put simply: they’re in charge of running the party, holding the constituencies together, wrangling the votes, managing the operations. But Sanders has staked out a genuine claim as the conscience of the party. And as the fire that keeps the whole engine running. That’s an important power, and one that I hope is used well.

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Hillary Clinton is winning because of the South – that’s a feature not a bug

‘Hillary Clinton is racking up delegates in states that will never vote for a Democrat in the general election.’ It’s a good talking point, and I understand the frustration from Sanders supporters who feel like their candidate is being written off based on the votes of a bunch of deep red states in the south. But I want to push back on the narrative here a little bit, and encourage those who care about democratic choice and liberal values to appreciate why this system is a good one.

One of the key things here: the Democratic primary (with all of its delegates being assigned proportionally) isn’t really about ‘states’ in any significant way. What state you live in determines when you get to vote, but broadly speaking (not 100% given caucuses and some small deviations in allocation rules, but broadly speaking) votes mostly count the same regardless of where you live.

And this is actually one of the best features of the primary system: that it allows all members of the Democratic Party to select their standard-bearer, regardless of where they live. The folks who live in the south, who have been voting in overwhelming numbers for Clinton, have been expressing their wishes for the future of the Democratic Party and for the person who might be president. And they aren’t just whistling in the wind; the system is actually responding to them.

That’s a good thing. And it’s good in precisely the sort of way that the Sanders campaign is good. His message is that we need to stand up for those who are disempowered, the people who are constrained by the institutions of their local political orders, who are denied real representative capacity by the circumstances that surround them. That their value as people with opinions and perspectives and wishes and desires should be respected and heeded. And that’s just as true for those who live in red states as it does for those who have been left behind economically.

The primary isn’t (and shouldn’t) be a purely tactical game about assembling a coalition of states. It should be about the people debating and considering with themselves: who do we want to represent us? That’s something that I hope most Sanders supporters would agree with.

I also want to slightly challenge one other aspect of this. While it is true, so far, that Clinton has picked up most of her delegate advantage in red states, she’s also won Virginia (a very purple state) by huge margins, and also won Nevada (purple), Iowa, Massachusetts, etc.

And all of this is partly a fluke of the calendar. Clinton is winning red states in the south because a ton of Democrats in those states aren’t white. It has little to do with how conservative they are (generally speaking, the Democratic electorate in the south is every bit as liberal as it is in blue states – which is different from the GOP, where Republicans in blue states really do tend to be quite a bit more liberal than those in red states). And there’s every reason to expect that the same demographic choices will produce more Clinton wins in big blue states like New York, California, etc.

In fact, we’ll get a good test of this in Michigan later today. If Sanders wins there, it will be worth revisiting this question. But for now, the key determining factor of the race is demographic, not geographic.

And I hope we can all agree that non-white voters are an important and valuable part of the Democratic coalition, whose opinions deserve every bit as much respect as anyone else, regardless of whether they’re surrounded by a sea of conservatives.

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For the sake of momentum


Momentum – Aimee Mann

Nate Silver has called momentum ‘the most overrated concept in elections analysis.’ Perhaps that’s a slight overbid, but only a slight one.

And yet, it’s so tempting!  Especially since there actually is some research to suggest that momentum is real and important, particularly in presidential primaries.  After all, the whole point of the drawn-out primary process is to allow small shifts in the early stages to guide and inform later events. You cull down the field through momentum effects, where a couple good results causes future undecideds to break in your direction. Or, perhaps more importantly, by encouraging tepid support for second and third tier candidates to melt away.

That said, I wanted to address the question of ‘momentum’ as it relates to Clinton and Sanders. My general bearishness on the Sanders candidacy has incited some pushback from Sanders supporters, with one key point being the trend of the election being in his favor.

The (perfectly fair) argument goes like this: Sanders remains behind by seven-ish points in the Pollster average, which is a big margin, but is a heck of a lot closer than it used to be (it’s worth noting that he’s down by a full 10 points in the 538 poll aggregate, which I think is slightly better than the strict Pollster one). And the trend is clear. Clinton is holding firm, but Sanders is gaining, steadily and emphatically.

Which all means that, to some extent, this is just a battle of expectations. Sanders needs a narrative of growing insurgency, which is building and ready to overwhelm the establishment. If his loss in Nevada is read as a genuine setback, it might risk quelling that spirit and becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So I absolutely get why Sanders supporters want to push back on the narrative of Clinton inevitability.

But from the perspective of an analyst, there’s a big problem with all this: we just haven’t seen any real evidence of voters leaving Clinton. Sanders hasn’t cut into her support in any real way; he’s simply acquired the excess capacity. Yes, there have been ups and downs for her, but her support is right around where it was back in September. It’s possible that Sanders-excitement has inspired new people to join the voting pool, but if that’s happening, then Clinton is picking up additional support to weigh against them.

So, for all that Sanders is doing amazingly well, nothing we’ve seen yet actually suggests that Clinton lacks the voting base necessary to win her the nomination. That is: Sanders’ momentum is currently about hoovering up the half of the electorate that isn’t yet settled on Clinton, and there’s a clear ceiling on that. Of course it’s possible that he’ll change things even more, and really tip the race on its side. But we just haven’t seen anything like that yet.

This particular kind of momentum, where a candidate who appeals more directly to the base gathers up all the disaffected folks who would be willing to settle for the mainstream candidate but aren’t quite ready to get there yet, is pretty well understood. You only have to look back four years to see a perfect example.

Look at this chart and tell me that Candidate B isn’t in great shape. Look at all the momentum!

romney santorum through FebExcept if we go just a couple weeks further down the road, reality sets in quite firmly, and we get this picture:

romney santorum full

This is, of course, Romney vs. Santorum. And it’s not hard to see that scenario playing out again.

Is the race completely over? Absolutely not. And it’s a testament to the Sanders campaign and his supporters that it still remains in doubt. But it’s nevertheless true that Clinton remains the prohibitive favorite. The betting markets have her around an 85% chance, and I’d buy at that price. Absent a major shock in the next few weeks, the outcome is pretty settled.

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50 songs for 50 states: Maryland

Maryland, Maryland, what are we to do with you?

There are plenty of non-terrible songs for the state. Lyle Lovett, Randy Newman, Stephen Malkmus, The Jayhawks, Gram Parsons…all have perfectly fine entries. But none of them sing to me. Dylan’s got his “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” which is important stuff, but…just doesn’t have much of a melody. And a weaker man might just go with “Hungry Heart” but ‘got a wife and kid in Baltimore, Jack’ just isn’t enough for me to hang my hat on here. And I guess I could just roll with The Mountain Goats again, since “Going to Maryland” is a perfectly nice little song.

But instead of any of those, I’m going to pick Tim Hardin. Because good god could Tim Hardin write himself a song, and I feel like people don’t pay him nearly enough attention. I like his original the best, but there’s some good covers by Joan Baez and Johnny Cash, if that’s more your speed.

Footnote: I learned something pretty exciting while I was researching: the very first song Tori Amos ever wrote was called Baltimore, and It. Is. Amazing. Seriously, go listen, and then marvel that the same person was later responsible for Little Earthquakes.

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Clinton, Sanders, and the politics of affiliation

Let It Burn – The Orwells

The following two statements both seem true to me:

1) The success of Bernie Sanders as a presidential candidate means that if Hillary Clinton becomes president, she will be more likely to pursue a left-friendly agenda.

2) The success of Bernie Sanders as a presidential candidate is directly correlated with significant increases in left-wing distaste for the idea of a Hillary Clinton presidency.

#2 is anecdotal, so maybe I’m wrong there. But it sure feels correct.

The argument for #1 is pretty simple.  Basically, the success of Sanders means that Clinton-as-president would be obliged to govern in a more left-leaning direction than would otherwise have been the case. His campaign is mobilizing and solidifying commitments to a left-driven agenda, and she will therefore be obliged to do more to appease those interests and reflect the commitments of her base.

So, the better Bernie does, the better a Clinton presidency will be – at least for those who value the same things as Sanders.

But, of course, as he is seen as more viable, the differences between them take on far more meaning for people. And the power of affective political affiliation kicks into gear. Meaning: she becomes far less tolerable, because her positions now have to be judged against a new benchmark of political possibility.

And, at least judging by my social media landscape, that produces a lot of visceral anger about the idea of a Clinton presidency.

To be as clear as possible: my point isn’t that people can’t possibly hold a legitimate anti-Clinton position. Of course they can. It’s just worth remembering that politicians exist within context. And the context of 2016 means that a second Clinton presidency would look a heck of a lot different from the first one. And the better that Sanders does, the more true that becomes.

The crucial point here is pretty simple: if you’re ‘feeling the Bern,’ then you’re winning, and that will remain true even if your candidate doesn’t win the nomination (which I continue to believe is not all that likely).

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50 songs for 50 states: Maine

portland eastern promenade

Going To Maine – The Mountain Goats

Oh Maine, you are a beautiful state, but holy cow are there not any good songs about you.

My default for this project, when a specific state is extremely weak, is to fall back on the wonderful cushion of John Darnielle’s “Going to…” series. So far that hasn’t been necessary. Until today.

And unfortunately, while you can’t really go wrong with the Mountain Goats, this is hardly one of his strongest songs. It, quite rightly, was stashed at the very end of a rarities collection, and mostly lives up to that promise. It’s a perfectly cromulent song, but not a whole lot more.

Still, the only other options I could even think of were 1) Okkervil River’s “Maine Island Lovers,” which is pretty much the peak of their mopey songs about mopiness and I just cannot get into, and 2) that awful Tim McGraw song about Portland. Which, no.

So, here we are.

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Rubio won Iowa

Yes, yes, I know. He actually finished third.  And I get why it frustrates people to call the guy who finished third the winner. But it’s only frustrating if you insist on ignoring what the contest is actually about.

First things first, Rubio only ‘finished third’ by one metric: raw number of votes cast. But that’s not how delegates are assigned. In fact, Rubio was tied for second, since he and Trump were allocated the same number of delegates. What’s more, they each received a grand total of one (1) delegate less than Cruz. It’s now 8-7-7.  And that’s out of almost 2500 total delegates.

The point is: talking about who ‘won’ Iowa requires working from pointless fictions no matter how you describe it. Because in a proportional system, ‘winning’ just isn’t that important.

But the broader point is even more important. I’ll put it in bold to make it as clear as possible: the point is not to ‘win’ Iowa. The point is to win the nomination.

That’s why people keep saying Iowa was huge for Rubio. Because it was. It has nothing to do with ‘winning the night’ or any such nonsense. The point is that Iowa showed us several important things, many of which point toward an eventual Rubio victory.

  1. Trump underperformed his polls. That’s huge, because the whole case for Trump, Juggernaut has been built entirely on polling. But if those numbers are soft, then Trump is far weaker than people have been insisting.
  2. Further: if Trump can only pull 25% when people actually get to the polls and face the fact of decision, it suggests that the dynamics of the race haven’t really changed in fundamental ways. Has Trump affected the race? Of course he has. But (at least in Iowa), it doesn’t look like he’s upended the cart completely.  As Nate Silver notes, Iowa wasn’t just another little data point; it was the first time that actual voters voted.
  3. Cruz won Iowa, but Iowa is a great place for Cruz-like candidates. This is a state that picked Santorum and Huckabee in the past two cycles–at levels of support similar to what Cruz earned. If Cruz is just another variation on those guys, he’s very unlikely to win. Of course, he might be stronger than they were. But on the evidence of the night, it looks like he might simply be replicating the ‘evangelical-backed’ candidate model.
  4. Rubio picked up more votes alone than the entire rest of the ‘establishment’ candidates combined. That’s huge because it makes it far more likely that ‘the party’ (of the ‘party decides’ model) will start to settle on him as their best bet.

I mean, look: the case for Rubio has always been simple: he’s the candidate with the broadest appeal in the party. Once the party elites accept that fact, support will condense behind him and he’ll push everyone else aside.  Iowa provided a data point in support of that theory.

And, conversely, the case against Rubio has always been equally simple: things are different this time. The party doesn’t decide anymore. And Iowa provided a data point against that theory.

Would Rubio have preferred to win Iowa? Of course. But the goal isn’t to win Iowa. The goal is to win the nomination. And in that race, Rubio ‘won’ on Monday night, because he’s now closer to the nomination than anyone else.

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If the mountain won’t come to Sanders…


Details of the War – Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!

Seth Ackerman has a blistering piece in Jacobin, which goes on the warpath against Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias at Vox regarding their recent comments on Bernie Sanders. Ackerman’s thesis: the Vox folks are marshalling a cynical attack against Bernie, grounded in a growing fear emerging from the center of the Democratic Party about the genuinely radical possibilities embodied in the Sanders campaign. In the face of threats by their base to actually pursue single payer health care, he thinks, the establishment is striking back.

This argument isn’t entirely wrong. In fact, I’m generally sympathetic to the premise. Vox clearly stands for a certain portion of the center-left intellectual establishment. And Sanders clearly represents an oppositional force in left-wing politics.

But while Ackerman does a fine job of characterizing the dispute in general terms, man alive does he take a terrible route to get there.  It’s almost to the point that I can’t help but wonder if it’s a piece of elaborate performance art, in which literally every accusation hurled outwards is then mirrored by the accuser.

Because otherwise, I find it hard to understand how someone could write a piece with the basic thesis of: be more generous in your interpretation, which itself is so utterly without generosity or fairness.

One example: Ackerman is very unhappy with Klein “inexplicably dismissing the possibility of administrative savings,” and then cheekily references Klein’s work from 2007, noting that that back then he saw administrative savings as awesome. The implication being: Klein has been bought off, and no longer is interested in facts.

It’s a nice bit of rhetoric, but it’s totally unfair. It levels an accusation based on tone, and then hides the ball while purporting to reveal the facts. Because look: Administrative costs for health insurance in the US are approximately $1000 per capita vs. $300 or so for Canada. So let’s assume that Sanders’ plan brings those costs down to Canadian levels. That’s great! That’s $700 savings per capita, by Sanders’ numbers.

Okay, let’s check on the overall savings he promises. Oh, it’s $5000.

So why is it unfair for Klein to point out that Sanders still needs the vast majority of his cost savings to come from other sources??

A second example: the entire broadside against Yglesias is hypocrisy-based. Basically: He used to say vagueness was okay back when his boy Obama was the vague one, but now that Bernie isn’t spilling the details, he’s hyper-critical. And there is a certain rhetorical force to that point, but A) people are surely allowed to change their minds over the course of eight years and B) it’s not like it’s impossible to identify a gap between ‘vagueness is okay’ and ‘details are totally unnecessary.’

But those two objections aren’t even my real issue here. What really bugs me is that this charge of hypocrisy so fundamentally misses the point of the Yglesias argument. Which isn’t ‘moar details!!!!’, but is a far more specific critique that Sanders seems fundamentally uninterested in filling in the details. Which is very different.

Ackerman seems at least vaguely aware of this fact:

Warming to his theme, Yglesias spends a paragraph dilating on the complexities of administering Britain’s National Health Service (a different system than the one Sanders is proposing), and then after reviewing those intricate issues, complains that “Sanders’s ‘plan’ doesn’t cover any of this ground.” Worse, he says, Sanders’s “worldview” is unable even to “accommodate the questions”; for the Senator, “the only relevant issue is ‘whether we have the guts to stand up to the private insurance companies and all of their money.’”

But there’s something missing from this paragraph.  Namely: any actual answer to these charges.  Apparently, for Ackerman, these statements are so obviously foolish that simply giving them voice reveals their vacuousness.  But these aren’t rude asides from Yglesias, or evidence of some irrational disdain for Sanders. This the core of his argument.



His criticism is that Sanders has an overly simplistic worldview, which considers passion and commitment sufficient, which actively eschews the sort of nitty-gritty work that comes from having to build complex policy instruments, under less than perfect conditions. Sanders, that is, seems to believe that if we just care enough about an issue, that’s enough.

I think that concern is probably overstated (though I do have some sympathy for it). But it’s an argument that is specific to Sanders, and which Yglesias makes repeatedly in the linked piece.  It’s certainly not an unfair issue to raise.

So it’s bizarre to write a 6000 word screed, and still not find time to actually answer it.

One final example. Ackerman writes:

How could Klein have felt such warmth back then for the single-payer systems of Canada or France (let alone Britain, with its socialized NHS!), while being so hostile to Bernie Sanders’s plan now, when the latter claims to draw its inspiration specifically from the former?

If true, that would be damning. But…it’s pretty clearly not true. I went back and scoured the Klein piece, and I found no evidence of hostility to single-payer systems. Quite the opposite. His piece reads like a general endorsement of such systems, combined with a political argument that Sanders isn’t going to win many converts unless he provides details.

The point being: single payer is broadly popular (it polls right around 50%, sometimes a fair bit higher depending on how the question is asked), but that popularity is pretty thin. Basically: it’s got lots of tepid supporters, but they tend to evaporate when the rubber meets the road.

So if Sanders really wants to move that needle, he’s going to have to take that problem on directly, not push it to the side.

In all of this, it’s absolutely fair to say (as Ackerman does) that ‘most other countries in the West have better health care systems than us, and we should be more like them.’ But it’s also fair to point out that the American public, on the whole, is extremely allergic to change in health care policy, and isn’t going to be knocked off their perch by ‘it works in lots of other places.’  Remember how much flak Obama got for ‘if you like your plan, you can keep it’? The single payer debates multiples that times 10,000. And that’s a genuine problem, one that a candidate who really cares about making this policy probably should engage with.

As someone who likes Sanders a lot, I wish he’d do more to fill in those gaps. Because right now, as much as I like him in theory, I have a hard time actually believing in his political revolution, precisely because it’s grounded in the faith that being right is sufficient, and that all our failures are simply due to the folks in charge not being steadfast enough.

And on this point, it doesn’t strike me as entirely coincidental that the blistering attack on the Vox folks comes from Jacobin magazine.

Because this primary campaign really is fundamentally a debate about whether to consolidate existing gains, or to continue pressing forward in service of revolutionary ideals.

More thoughts on that analogy forthcoming, if I can find the time.

In the meantime, let me just close by saying: I like single payer. I think the US should have single payer. I’m glad it’s part of the conversation in this campaign. I wish it were a bigger part, and I don’t think the Vox position is unfair on that point. I think they also wish it were a bigger part. And they’re looking for evidence that Sanders wants to make it a bigger part. I’m looking for that, too. I hope to find it.

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I’m up and doing circles

Are You Ten Years Ago – Tegan and Sara

This almost went past without me noticing, but today is the 10 year anniversary of my very first post here (my top albums of 2005 list).

It’s genuinely crazy to think I’ve been writing stuff here for a full decade. Thanks to everyone who’s stopped by over the years. I lost a big chunk of audience with the switch away from Blogger in 2010 (and the decline in frequency of my posting), but I still get a hundred or so people coming by every day, and it’s genuinely an honor to know that people are coming by to read what I have to say.  Especially compared to the tiny number of eyeballs that will ever find their way to my academic work…

And hey, speaking of which, if you’re interested in justice and political theory, I’ve got an article in the current issue of Law, Culture and the Humanities.

Anyways, here’s to another decade around here. Thanks everyone.

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Enough with this ‘natural born citizen’ nonsense


Let’s Be Natural – The Rutles

The arguments about this ‘natural born citizen’ stuff are really getting ridiculous. We all had a good laugh about it, but the joke has really run it’s course. And yet all too many people keep insisting that we need to take this seriously.  Frankly, it’s getting a little embarrassing.

The most recent example, which really got my goat, is from Paul Campos. He says there’s a difference between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ legal arguments, and that this counts as a ‘real’ one. And sure, it’s ‘real’ in the sense that if you squint really hard you can argue your way into calling it plausible, if you’re willing to twist our basic values into a pretzel to serve your political interests.

But c’mon. Yes, there is a difference between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ legal arguments. But there’s also a distinction between ‘real’ arguments and ‘incredibly stupid’ ones. And this is an incredibly stupid argument.

Obviously there is a tiny frisson of pleasure that comes from noting that the knock-down argument against this silly position depends on using legal interpretive models that Cruz and his friends pretend to hate. But that’s not a good justification for insisting that there is in fact a credible legal argument here.

And all the folks on the left who insist on pretending that their interest in this doesn’t have everything to do with the fact that Ted Cruz is the most eminently punchable man on the planet…well, they should be ashamed of themselves.

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