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?


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.


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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Did Sanders really drag Clinton to the left?

Democratic presidential candidates  Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, left, and Hillary Rodham Clinton talk before the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)

The Democratic primary is drawing to a close. While Bernie Sanders will (and should) remain in the campaign through the final contests, he’s now acknowledged that his presence has more to do with setting agendas than with winning the nomination. So, as the gears start to shift a little bit, I think it’s worth pausing to reflect on the campaign and what it might mean going forward.

And one thing that seems ineluctably true is that it’s been fought almost exclusively on Sanders’ terms. While no one would deny that there are differences between these candidates, the actual positions they’ve staked out in the campaign have been pretty similar. Sanders has regularly gone further, of course, but Clinton has gone out of her way to narrow the gap as much as possible.

It certainly didn’t have to go that way.

  • When Sanders said ‘single payer’ she could have said ‘the American people like their freedom, and they aren’t interested in the government taking away the health care that they like.’
  • When Sanders said ‘$15 minimum wage’ she could have said ‘that’s arrant nonsense, and would be a disaster in parts of the country where the median wage is barely $15 an hour.’
  • When Sanders said ‘an end to fracking’ she could have said ‘there are a whole lot of jobs in fracking, and Senator Sanders is trying to take them away.’
  • When Sanders said ‘end the death penalty’ she could have stoked fears of terrorists and rapists, to evoke the our worst impulses.

I could go on pretty much endlessly here. On virtually every issue you can imagine, Clinton sought to minimize the gap between her and Sanders, emphasizing her agreement with the principles, focusing her disagreement exclusively on the details.

This is generally regarded as a sign of the left’s strength, and understood as Sanders dragging Clinton to the left. His campaign, the argument goes, showed in vivid detail just how much passion there is on the left, and demonstrated that it’s no longer possible to win a Democratic nomination by tacking to the center. In general, I’m mostly on board with this idea. There certainly are notable places where Sanders seemed to have boxed Clinton into making promises that really will guide her should she win the presidency.

But I also hesitate to draw that conclusion too forcefully. Because there’s another reading of this situation, which is that Clinton never really took the threat of Sanders seriously. In this account, she saw him as essentially a factional candidate, and therefore adopted a deflection strategy, with the goal of simply coasting to victory and avoiding doing too much to antagonize the left.  Basically: play defense, take a few hits here and there, but roll with them and keep racking up delegates. No point in fighting Sanders directly when he doesn’t really pose that big of a threat.

If this account is right, then the campaign didn’t really make much difference. If Clinton didn’t see herself as being in danger, she might not feel much obligation to keep that front occupied. Sure, she won’t want to make people too angry, but she also won’t see any obligation to govern to the left.

I want to be clear that I don’t think this is an either/or situation. The truth likely lies somewhere in between. But I want to parse out a couple potential implications of this.

First, the ‘Clinton was holding back’ theory is part of why I remain doubtful about the argument that Elizabeth Warren would have won this race handily if she had entered it. Maybe she would have, but that counterfactual would likely involve a very different sort of race. Clinton kept a lot of her potential big guns holstered, and we just don’t know what might have happened if she’d been forced to go on the offensive.

Second, I think this actually might tell us something about Clinton’s political skill. It’s a hallmark of successful political campaigns that they avoid overreactions. They identify the best strategy and then follow it with discipline, regardless of the flurries that erupt within a 24 hour news cycle. This is often regarded as a big part of the 2008 primary campaign; Clinton jumped around too much, while Obama played slow and steady. But this time around, it looks like Clinton remained incredibly disciplined. They presumably decided a year ago to run in this way, and it’s remarkable how little they seem to have panicked, even as the media began to doubt her, even as Bernie started drawing incredible attention and excitement. Rather than giving into the pressure and punching back aggressively, she stayed disciplined and just let the pressure dissipate.

Third, this characterization will certainly speak to some of the Clinton doubters out there, who see the left-leaning aspects of her campaign as inauthentic, and who regard her as buying too much into the narrative of her own inevitability. And while I don’t want to fully endorse that position, I do think it’s worth acknowledging that possibility.

I anticipate that I’ll experience some frustration over the next six months, as folks overreact to her inevitable tacking back to the center. But I’ll also do my best to remember that the power of ‘the democratic wing of the Democratic Party’ is still somewhat unclear and at risk. So it will be important to play close attention to the way she tacks. Adopting more ‘moderate’ language is relatively harmless. But if she starts walking back explicit promises, that’s a big red flag.

One thing we know for sure: Clinton is closely attuned to the shape of political power. So it’s very much in the interests of the left to make clear that they are ready to be her allies, and to lend the significant energy and excitement that characterized the Sanders campaign, but only insofar as she is willing to be their allies, too.

On both sides, I hope people find their way back from the ledges of “Bernie or Bust” for the Sanders folks and “There Is No Alternative” for the Clinton supporters.  By which I mean: Sanders supporters should vote for Clinton, and work for Clinton, as the best remaining chance to achieve some of their objectives. But at the same time Clinton will do very well to remember that there’s a lot of potential and possibility on the left, but she’s going to have to work to keep it going.


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The (not so) brief (not so) wondrous life of Kasich

John Kasich, governor of Ohio and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, pauses as he speaks during a campaign event at the Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, U.S., on Friday, Feb. 19, 2016. The six remaining Republicans face off Saturday in South Carolina's primary where Trump holds a commanding lead in the polls. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In a year of increasingly implausible events, when Donald Trump (!) is the frontrunner, and Ted Cruz (!!) is the last savior of the Republican establishment, I still insist that John Kasich’s persistent presence is, in some ways, the single weirdest thing about the whole race.

He should have dropped out literally months ago. And yet, here he stands, undaunted by simple things like math, or reality, or the existence of states that aren’t Ohio.

Let’s review a couple fun tidbits about his increasingly futile position.

  • Kasich is currently in 4th place in a three-man race. Marco Rubio, who dropped out over a month ago, still has a 30-delegate lead on him.
  • That is in part because, during that month since Rubio left, Kasich has won exactly the same number of delegates as Charles Barkley, Giada DeLaurentiis, and me.  Which is to say: zero.
  • Kasich would need to win 130% of the remaining vote to win the nomination.

But here’s my favorite one of all. Kasich has, of course, only won one contest–in his home state of Ohio. And while Ohio is reasonably big, it’s 66 delegates aren’t quite enough to really do the trick. In fact, in order to put Kasich on track for the nomination, Ohio would need to be roughly 16 times bigger. That is: if Ohio had a population of about 190 million people, it would have just enough delegates to get him 50.1% of the currently-assigned number.

So what I’m saying is: one tiny change to the system and Kasich could be the frontrunner.

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Ted Cruz is a Rawlsian. Wait, what?


From Erica Grieder at TexasMonthly, comes this interesting tidbit on Ted Cruz, Republican presidential aspirant:

Cruz, then, is calling for what he calls “opportunity conservatism.” What does that mean? “It means that conservatives should conceptualize and should articulate every domestic policy with a laser focus on easing the means of ascent,” he said. “That we should talk about policy with a Rawlsian lens.” … Rawls asks readers to imagine themselves behind “a veil of ignorance”: If you didn’t know what kind of situation you would be born into—your gender, your race, your family background, your physical health, and so on—what kind of political system would you consider most fair for everyone? That experiment, Rawls says, should point us to the broad principles of a just society. … It’s also an experiment that implicitly acknowledges the fact that things like race and class are, in reality (as opposed to in thought experiments), often correlated with economic outcomes. And so Rawls, as you might expect, has more commonly been associated with the American left than the right. But that was, of course, one of Cruz’s points. He said that when Democrats try to help people directly, as through an expanded safety net, they usually mean well, but “the problem is, it never, ever, ever works.”

This seems absurd on its face. After all, Rawls is the grand philosopher of the welfare state, the benchmark of liberalism. But Cruz’s reappropriation of Rawls is actually far less surprising than it might initially seem, and tells us genuinely interesting things about the importance of Rawls in the realm of political deliberation.

In short: Cruz is endorsing the Rawlsian imaginative move, while discarding the conclusions that Rawls derived from that move. The ease with which he’s able to perform this maneuver demonstrates a terminal weakness in Rawls’s overall project: to construct an enduring philosophical infrastructure capable of resolving the tensions within the value structures of liberal democracy.

The problem is embedded in the very idea of rationality. For Rawls, the veil of ignorance erases all conception of self. Not just race, class, or other identity markers, but also our concept of the good. It’s not just that we don’t know what we have; we don’t even know what we value. All that we have left is our bare capacity for reason, which will guide us toward conclusions that could be supported by anyone.

The problem, of course, is that reason is necessarily situated. Reason is not conducted abstractly; it is necessarily embodied. And this goes beyond the simple fact that, as a simple matter of fact, we are incapable of ever truly forgetting our place in the world. More deeply, the very structure of reason itself depends on territorializing the knowable world. As Hans-Georg Gadamer tells us, our capacity for judgment emerges out of our prejudices. There is no reason without differentiation.

As a practical matter, the effect of this is clear. The Rawlsian imaginative technique (the hypothetical original position) is always already infiltrated by theories of the good, which masquerade as the pure operations of reason. This makes it almost infinitely portable. And makes it a simple thing for Cruz to assert the value of massive tax cuts for the wealthy, a collapse of the welfare state, racial targeting, and all the rest. These, he believes, are what any right-thinking person would endorse if only they could be set free from the whispering corruptions of the left.

All of which is to say: turning to Rawls for an ironclad defense of the progressive agenda is a dead-letter. But surely we have known this for decades. A Theory of Justice is one of the most influential and important books of the last century, philosophical or otherwise. And yet its release coincided almost perfectly with the dissipation of the very political structures it sought to buttress.

But this by no means is a call for simply forgetting Rawls. It’s a call for rethinking the significance of his work.  As we forge into the 21st century, many turn to Rawls for philosophical refuge. They find comfort in the hermeneutic elaboration of his architecture. But to me, Rawls is far more interesting for his insights into the limits of that project.

His late-life ‘political turn’ is widely misunderstood as a defanging of Theory. But in my mind it reflects a growing awareness that ‘justice as fairness’ is far more important as a framework for channeling structures of thought than as a philosophical construct.

That Ted Cruz finds something of value in this work is, in a peculiar way, an important point in Rawls’s favor. It demonstrates the capacity for enduring frames of reference, capable of organizing meaningful political disputation. If Ted Cruz (bomb thrower, destroyer of norms, assassin of institutional restraints) remains even somewhat in thrall of these conceptual framework, it suggests that there may still be hope for politics.

Rawls can’t be used to defeat Cruz. Then again, no philosophical theory could. But the Rawlsian imaginative move nevertheless offers hope. It exposes a lingering theme of unity, a horizon that may yet be fused (again, borrowing from Gadamer), across which genuine political disagreement may still be engaged.

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The Democratic primary and the meaning of faith

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign event at Music Man Square in Mason City, Iowa January 27, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria - RTX24BL7

Reason to Believe – Aimee Mann and Michael Penn

“It’s too utopian. It’s a policy of rainbows and unicorns. It’s not enough to just have faith; you need a way to get things done.”  These accusations will sound familiar to the supporters of Bernie Sanders. They’ve been leveled with regularity over the campaign. Some might say with monotony.

And each time, the Sanders supporters have responded with a straightforward query: that his ideas sound impossible is precisely the problem. After all, what’s actually preventing us from ensuring that every American gets basic health care, a chance at a good job capable of putting food on their table and a roof over their head? Why can’t the richest country in the history of the world provide free college for anyone who wants it? These aren’t technical or material problems, but simply down to a lack of political will. And if that’s the case, isn’t that fact itself a searing indictment of our current political order? What further reason do you need to support change?

However, for those less inclined toward the Sanders revolution, this rhetorical move is exceptionally aggravating, to the extent that it willfully conflates means and ends. To them, it’s a naïve move grounded in the faith that pure intentions are sufficient, that ultimately heroes will triumph and villains receive their just deserts. But for these folks, often self-styled as ‘realists,’ the right beliefs aren’t enough. The world is a harsh and complex place, filled with intractable problems that can’t be resolved by broad strokes. And out here in the real world “women never really faint, and villains always blink their eyes.”

The politics of faith vs. the politics of realism

So here we have a spectrum: those who have faith vs. those who insist on being ‘realistic.’ Obviously, many people will see elements of both in themselves. But this simple difference in attitude explains quite a bit of the vitriol that characterizes this debate. Passions run high here not just because people disagree about policy questions or ideological goals, but because the entire frame of the conversation is structured by these underlying attitudes.

This is why some of the most antagonistic conversations revolve around questions that are ostensibly neutral. For example: ‘who is going to win the nomination’ is an empirical question, not a normative one. Even if Sanders is the ‘best’ candidate, that tells us nothing about whether he’ll accumulate enough delegates (except insofar as his ‘superior’ candidacy can be expected to win him votes). So why does it inspire such vituperative dispute?

The simple answer is: people don’t like bad news, and will do anything they can to avoid acknowledging it. Conversely, people don’t like stubbornness, and will do anything they can to punish it. But I think it’s actually more complicated than that. We don’t need to assume the worst of people to explain these fights. Because ultimately what’s going on here is much deeper than just accuracy in prediction.

What faith tells us about ‘facts’

At a fundamental level, this is an epistemological problem. At stake is the filter through which we encounter ‘facts.’ For those who believe, Sanders doesn’t look like a longshot, because that claim presumes the inevitability of knowledge-frameworks, which they see the entire Sanders campaign challenging. And they find succor for this faith, because, well, haven’t the pundits missed on all kinds of assertions already?

On the other side of the conversation, indeterminacy is sharply distinguished from meaningless. For the realists, the limits of punditry over the past 12 months obviously inspire some reassessment. But to treat this as the death of prediction risks throwing a whole bunch of babies out with the bathwater. After all, this is how science works. You start with what you (think you) know, and evaluate new information. Evidence of past errors inspires self-reflection, reassessment of models, and so forth. Not a retreat into the irrefutability of faith.

And there’s something to this. After all, we can see all too clearly what happens when ‘what we want to be true’ is permitted to intrude into ‘what actually is true.’ Global warming denialists, anti-vaxxers, anti-evolutionists, those who shut down medical research or research into gun violence or any other issue simply because they don’t want facts to intrude on their desires. I’ve read my Thomas Kuhn, of course, and I’m all too familiar with the biases and prejudices built into all scientific arguments, but that doesn’t disprove that some degree of objective analysis is the lifeblood of progressivism. When we allow faith to replace reason, we ourselves no favors.

And with all that, you can look at the facts as they now stand. You find:

  1. Sanders still faces a huge gap in delegates
  2. For all the fluctuations on the calendar, the underlying demographics have held pretty stable throughout the race.
  3. For all that Michigan was a huge polling failure, on the whole the polls have been reasonably accurate
  4. Sanders has done very well in caucuses, less well in primaries
  5. Sanders has done well in open primaries, less well in closed primaries

And then you look at the remaining contests and see: they are almost exclusively primaries, many closed primaries, in states that are on the whole far more racially diverse than those Sanders has been winning, and in which Sanders is tends to trail in the polls by significant margins.

Taking in all this information, it is quite clear to me that it would take a massive change—well beyond even the ones we’ve already seen—to erase this deficit. That’s just a reality, not a value judgment.

But, of course, many people disagree with that assessment. They will say ‘those are assertions, not facts.’ And that’s the rub of things, isn’t it? Because what’s really going on here is a dispute not just about which facts truly hold, but more importantly about how such debates inflect the sort of world that we believe in.

And that realization needs to be a bigger part of these conversations, because it helps us all understand what we’re talking about when we talk about predictions. And it helps remind us of the limits of argument here.

The role of atheists in conversations about faith

To clarify things, let me propose an analogy. I think that, at a certain level, the debate over the facts of the race (Sanders can’t win, #feelthemath, etc.) scans quite a bit like the Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens going after religious people. They may or may not be ‘right,’ but they are definitely jerks.

So I have a lot of sympathy for people who see the positive side of things, who believe in the potential for a big change. And I empathize with the frustration it must cause to constantly encounter aggressive demands to ‘look at the facts!’ Because in some sense, it just kind of misses the point.

That said, I think that characterizing this as partly a conversation about what to believe also helps illustrate dangers in the other direction. Here I’m thinking about the accusations that fly from the Sanders supporters, which characterize all descriptive efforts as nothing but ideological shade. Which portray ‘the media’ as a stalking horse for the Clinton campaign, who is actively trying to help her win by painting a narrative of inevitability.

I see these arguments as, in an important sense, mirror images of the attacks from the other side. They are seriously overdetermined, and grounded in assumptions that are thoroughly ungenerous

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that there is no valid space for critiques of this sort. It is certainly true that media frames inject bias into political coverage, just as it is true that derisive attitudes toward leftist claims (seen as sophomoric, utopian, infeasible) informs the way general society understands those issues. The superdelegate system raises legitimate concerns. It’s not clear that the Party ought be in charge of scheduling debates. And so forth. These are real problems, and one of the wonderful things about the Sanders campaign has been the broader mobilization that has emerged around it, which has sought to break the stranglehold of those old characterizations.

The point is just: arguments of this sort run a real risk becoming so firmly grounded within one faith community that they utterly deny the possibility that others might also be acting in good faith to truly held beliefs of their own. Many reporters, for example, are well-aware that all reporting carries tinges of ideology. But they believe (truly and wholeheartedly) that to strive for descriptive clarity is a good in itself. They are neither the willing shock troops of ‘the establishment,’ nor are they unwitting stooges. They are well-meaning people doing work with real value.

Does that excuse them of all social responsibility? Certainly not. Just as those who made the bomb cannot claim moral purity simply because they were conducting ‘pure science.’ But I worry that this aspect of responsibility risks overriding everything else. That those who seek descriptive meaning are all painted with the same brush.

Understanding the faithless

So this invites a question: for those who live in faith, how will they regard those who reject the good word? Will they regard them skeptically? Will they see the refusal to accept the truth in their hearts as evidence of deep-lying sin? I see two risky possibilities. They might be categorized either as infidels (non-believers who must be shunned, or even destroyed) or as apostates (corrupters of the true faith). Broadly speaking, conservatives might be understood as the former, liberal as the latter.

Such responses worry me, for all the reasons that I worry about the problems of secular politics in a world defined by faith. Because the fact is: we don’t all share the same faith. The things that animate us are not identical, nor should they be. And I worry about political movements which refuse to accept this underlying reality. Which presume that there is only one true faith, and which therefore regard antagonism to its precepts as in some sense forsaken.

You see that kind of thing on display in assertions that the ‘system is rigged,’ which deny agency to the millions of living, breathing humans who show up to polls to cast ballots for other candidates. You see it in criticism which regards media efforts at neutrality and objectivity as evidence of crass opportunism or crony politics. You see it in all the arguments stacked together, which assert that Sanders would have won, if not for the efforts to rob the people of their chance. And so forth.

These ‘stab in the back’ narratives are potentially extremely corrosive, because they regard all obstacles to the ushering in of truth as illegitimate on face. And they tend to fixate on relatively insignificant issues, rather than addressing the larger reality of a world in which people simply do not the same truths. ‘They system is rigged’ becomes an excuse to regard only one’s own form of political participation as genuine. Everyone else is either complicit or a dupe.

In limited doses, that’s fine. But as it grows, that sort of thinking becomes dangerous. Because it regards one type of faith as the only correct form, and therefore poses a real threat to pluralistic democracy.

Progressivism and faith

All of which brings me to my deeper point. I’ve been speaking so far within the framework of ‘faith vs. realism.’ But, it should already be clear, this is flawed in its very formulation. Because the ‘realistic’ approach isn’t antagonistic to faith—and it does neither side of this debate any favors to treat it as if it were. The realistic approach isn’t about ‘truth over belief;’ it just reflects a different sort of faith.

And, in an important way, what I’m talking about here unifies these conversations. Those who believe in the possibility of the Sanders campaign often finding themselves at war with two theoretically distinct groups. The first is the numbers-crunchers, who make ‘value-neutral’ claims about who will win. The second is the centrist liberals, who like ‘what Bernie stands for’ but ultimately prefer to go with the mainstream, wonky, ‘progressive who gets things done.’

But what should now be clear is that both of those groups are singing off the same songsheet. They both ground their perspective on the campaign in a deep-seated faith in the progressive perfectibility of our systems.

Writ large: they believe in the narrative of progress. And they see progress emerging through the slow, but linear accumulation of knowledge—tweaking things here, adjusting things there, and eventually making real improvements. The underlying sense is that to fix a thing, you must first understand it. And, as a result, change very rarely comes in big sweeps. Instead, it arises via painstaking accretions, through the “strong and slow boring of hard boards.”

All of which is to say: these days ‘progressivism’ has become a bit of a floating signifier, and both Clinton and Sanders really want to assert a claim to that label for themselves. But what I’m describing here is one specific way in which Clinton really does fit into the historical narrative of progressivism in a way that Sanders (and especially his supporters) really don’t. Progressivism in its 19th century roots was very much based on faith in the perfectibility of systems through the application of human reason and ingenuity. It believed in capitalism, but wanted to harness it. It believed in regulation but had no interest in system change.

The theology of pluralism

And, most importantly for my purposes, it reflected a deep-lying faith that ‘what unites us is far greater than what divides us.’ Or, as (then Senatorial candidate) Obama once said: “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”

Put simply: this kind of faith is grounded in a fundamental belief that difference can be exceeded, that horizons can be fused (Horizontverschmelzung). But, and this is crucial, this is only possible if we see each other for what we really are. It’s not enough to know what’s right; you have to understand. Which means grasping why other think differently. It means accepting the validity of those with whom you disagree. It means taking them for what they are, not insisting that they must be something else.

And it means holding onto the possibility that politics (dirty, grimy, everyday politics) possesses an intrinsic value. More broadly, that the back and forth in which we attempt to convert others to our point of view, and genuinely accept that they might convert us, is the apotheosis of democracy.

Which is not to say that politics is pure, or uncorrupted. Of course it’s not. And of course it rarely matches up to this ideal. But in spite of those failures, there’s something inextinguishable at the heart of the process. A sort of fundamental dignity evoked by the principle of pluralistic politics—in which people disagree with one another about the appropriate policies, goals, ideologies, etc. but everyone agrees with the baseline premise that political systems.

Does this all sound fanciful and utopian? Well, sure. It is fanciful and utopian! Just as Sanders supporters believe in an ideal of America, in spite of evidence that suggests it’s miles away, those who believe in politics of this sort hold onto their own brand of faith. It motivates them to seek out marginal gains where possible. To embrace the value of making ten or a hundred lives better, in the hopes that thousands or millions will someday follow.

I don’t ask or require that you share this belief with me. But I do think it’s important that you respect it. Because if faith in Sanders and what he represents comes packaged with such deep cynicism that it can’t even acknowledge the possibility that politics itself might bring good into the world, I have a hard time seeing how it’s ever supposed to work.

And, by the same token, it’s incumbent on the ‘realists’ to get off their high horse, to recognize their own deep utopianism, and to regard the beliefs of those who see a different trajectory as noble rather than objects of mockery.

If we can’t even do that much, it strikes me that neither perspective really has much to offer the world. Because without even that basic level of shared understanding, I don’t see how democracy of any sort can ever succeed.

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Trump and the White Queen

white queen

The White Queen, from Through the Looking-Glass:

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Donald Trump:

In his first 100 days, Trump said he would cut taxes, “renegotiate trade deals and renegotiate military deals,” including altering the U.S. role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
He insisted that he would be able to get rid of the nation’s more than $19 trillion national debt “over a period of eight years.”
Most economists would consider this impossible because it could require taking more than $2 trillion a year out of the annual $4 trillion budget to pay off holders of the debt.

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