Monday, October 28, 2013

The Trouble With Wikipedia

Good article, "The Decline of Wikipedia," from MIT's Technology Review. Another example of how the scope of the virtual world we frequently imagine to be limitless is just as likely to be constrained by traditional forms of power. Here's an excerpt:
Because Wikipedia has failed to replenish its supply of editors, its skew toward technical, Western, and male-dominated subject matter has persisted. In 2011, researchers from the University of Minnesota and three other schools showed that articles worked on mostly by female editors—which presumably were more likely to be of interest to women—were significantly shorter than those worked on mostly by male editors or by men and women equally. Another 2011 study, from the University of Oxford, found that 84 percent of entries tagged with a location were about Europe or North America. Antarctica had more entries than any nation in Africa or South America.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

GOP Tactics and GOP Ideology

Jonathan Bernstein at Salon doesn't put much stock in a crack-up of the GOP.
The truth is that today’s Republican Party looks about as close to homogeneous as a major party in an enormous nation can get. It’s very easy to imagine its differences dissolving rapidly during the next campaign, just as they did when a somewhat similar split appeared to open up during the Clinton presidency.
Bernstein's piece is a good reminder that despite all the GOP infighting, the party itself is as ideologically cohesive as any party in American history. In my last post, I suggested that the crisis of the GOP mirrors the problems that destroyed the Whigs and split the Democrats in the decade before the Civil War. By the metrics of partisanship, rhetoric, and political tactics, the comparison holds water. But the driver of politics and extremism in the 1850s (and all the decades preceding) was the political fact of slavery and its uncertain future in a free republic. No such issue, certainly no such uniquely sectional issue, threatens the unity of the current Republican Party. That is essentially Bernstein's point. As he puts it,
I do believe that the Republican Party has become severely dysfunctional, but that matters mainly in governing, not electioneering. And I don’t think the dysfunction is really about internal differences; it’s far more about a combination of perverse incentives provided by the conservative marketplace, along with the unhappy influence of a handful of past Republican leaders.
This strikes me as a defensible perspective, but there are a couple questions raised by Bernstein's argument that might be worth pursuing. Are divisions within a political party that have more to do with tactics than policies somehow less threatening to the integrity of the party? The common sense answer, I think, is: Yes, they are less threatening. If all of the GOP opposes new revenue streams (i.e. taxes) to address government debt, then the differences by which they obstruct Democrats from enacting such taxes are probably not such a big a deal.

But common sense answers aren't necessarily useful in the current political climate. What the government shutdown demonstrated is that political tactics have become elevated to the level of ideology. For the GOP it is not enough to advocate for policy positions, like curtailing federal taxes. The political test now is the manner in which a GOPer fights for them. Consider Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a man Alex Pareene argues has done more to stymie President Obama than any other Republican. His efforts to work with Harry Reid, end the shutdown, and stop the Republican freefall in the polls has earned him vigorous opposition from conservative groups intent on replacing him with a Tea Party candidate. Time's "Swampland" reported on this endorsement of McConnell's primary opponent by Jim DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund (emphasis mine):
“Matt Bevin is a true conservative who will fight to stop the massive spending, bailouts, and debt that are destroying our country,” SCF Executive Director Matt Hoskins said in a statement. “He is not afraid to stand up to the establishment and he will do what it takes to stop Obamacare. We know that winning this primary won’t be easy. Mitch McConnell has the support of the entire Washington establishment and he will do anything to hold on to power. But if people in Kentucky and all across the country rise up and demand something better, we’re confident Matt Bevin can win this race.”
It could be that tactics matter, as it turns out, not just in governing but in electioneering too. The other question we ought to ask is if the alignment of the GOP across major policy positions is as unified as Bernstein suggests. Surely there is no single issue like slavery cutting across the political landscape, but there are an array of issues in which the more extremist wing of the GOP has offered different legislative solutions too. Ross Douthat at The New York Times has been making this case for weeks now, most recently with this (emphasis his):
Yet at the same time, to the extent that policy differences are driving the current intra-G.O.P. fight, the populists tend to have 1) decent ideas and 2) a better sense than their establishment rivals of how to brand the party as something other than just a tool of rich people and business interests. Their strategy is disastrous, but their substance has something to recommend it. Which is part of the reason why it isn’t enough, for the Republicans to escape their current cul-de-sac, for the party leadership to “win” and the populist base to “lose” — let alone for the leadership to somehow jettison the base. Instead, somebody, somehow, has to both integrate and purge — leaving the Tea Party’s baggage by the roadside while continuing to speak to populist impulses and taking up populist ideas, and folding both into a strategic vision that’s more connected to political reality than what we’ve seen these last few weeks.
Immigration constitutes another fault line. GOP leadership has already made it clear that immigration reform ought to be a priority, especially coming off the exit polls of 2012's election. But in recent days hardliners have decided to scuttle attempts at immigration reform in some kind of adolescent response to losing the government shutdown fight that they had precipitated in the first place. Jonathan Chait for New York's "Daily Intelligencer" could scarcely believe what he was reporting:
It would be one thing if these sources opposed immigration reform on its merits. But they don't. They think immigration reform is a vital necessity. They believe failing to pass some kind of reform will harm America. But they want to do it anyway because they're mad about the shutdown.
All of which points to a conflation of tactics and policy into one aggregate Tea Party brand. Conservative ideology is no longer just a set of beliefs rooted in right wing principle—Conservative ideology is now a manifestation of political actions taken in devotion to right-wing principles. The more extreme the action, the more ideologically true is its author. Bernstein may still be right; that kind of dysfunction may not result in full-bore GOP civil war. Charting a new course toward centrist ideas and reasonable governing compromises may defuse the crisis of the Republican Party. It is certainly conceivable that the GOP struggles on in rump form for a few elections cycles until a new figure reinvigorates the party by banishing the crazies. In fact, I think something along these lines is the most likely outcome.

But a GOP rupture may yet be in the cards... the current attempts to purge the party of the unpure, like (amazingly) Mitch McConnell, almost by definition entails a diminishment in party numbers and, inversely, far more crazed rhetoric and partisanship. Whomever the GOP leaves behind will have to adjust somehow. If that group includes technocrats, big business, and long standing pragmatic conservatives (none of whom really want to join the Democrats), that has the makings of an immediately well-funded and nationally appealing third party movement.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Fire-Eaters

It is becoming more and more common to read articles about the current political crisis and find comparisons to the Civil War. Tom Edsall for the New York Times began his most recent column with this:
These are extraordinary times. The depth and strength of voters’ conviction that their opponents are determined to destroy their way of life has rarely been matched, perhaps only by the mood of the South in the years leading up to the Civil War.
In a Salon interview with left leaning economist Doug Henwood, the question of whether a stock market crisis would finally compel the Republicans to capitulate was raised. Henwood responded:
It does seem like this group of really hardcore Tea Party types may not really be impressed. They seem to believe that the cause of justice is on their side, and that they are making some sort of glorious last stand or avenging the surrender of the South in 1865 or something. They may not listen.
 Plenty of signs ominously point to Henwood's speculation proving true. Republicans may not capitulate despite all the warning signs, not only to the economy but to the interests of their own party. In an eerily familiar replaying of the 2012 election, the right wing seems determined to interpret falling poll numbers as winning poll numbers. California Republican Tom McClintock took just this rosy view of the situation saying, "Actually the polling that I've seen is showing a rising body of opinion that rejects the no-compromise, no-negotiation stance of Harry Reid and Barack Obama."

Perhaps McClintock has access to in-house polling that shows something different from national polls, because nothing in national polls suggests good news for Republicans. Sam Wang, the statistician and analyst behind the Princeton Election Consortium, yesterday published a post arguing that, based on a recent set of PPP polls, the GOP majority was in jeopardy. (Wang is not irresponsible; he offers numerous caveats in his post, not least that the election is a year away, but the takeaway is that the politics of the shutdown are seriously hurting the Republicans.) PPP surveyed 24 GOP-held Congressional districts. Wang interprets the results (and references a graph on his blog) as follows:
The swing was toward Democrats for 23 races (below the red diagonal) and toward the Republican for 1 race (above the diagonal). The key piece of information is the gray zone. If more than half the points are in that gray zone, then that predicts a swing of >6% and a Democratic takeover. Currently, 17 out of 24 points are in the gray zone.
This sort of bad news is exactly why a few conservative pundits are questioning the wisdom of this GOP-born catastrophe. In The New York Post, John Podhoretz authored a column entitled "Suicide of the Right," which notes some uncomfortable truths: that Obamacare is unpopular but not overwhelmingly so; that "the US Congress is viewed favorably by... 11 percent of Americans"; and that "Republicans look considerably worse" in this showdown. These facts are not lost on Obama, who has been getting increasingly sharp as the crisis has escalated. (It's a guess, but I am 99% certain people in the White House were reading Sam Wang's post after it was published—Wang is as highly regarded (or moreso) as Nate Silver.)

But these same facts don't matter to hardliner Tea Partiers. Greg Sargent's morning post crystallized the current crisis as a problem not of negotiation over the debt, because both Democrats, including Obama, and Republicans have already said they want to negotiate, but under what circumstances such negotiations ought to take place. Right wing extremists who seem to be running the GOP only want to negotiate in a crisis atmosphere, because that gives them the only leverage they have with Obama. We know this because the GOP refused to negotiate earlier this year when the Senate passed a budget, and they are refusing Obama's offer to negotiate after opening the government and raising the debt ceiling.

In other words, John Boehner has watched as a radical wing of his own party has manufactured a crisis, escalated it, and forced him to extract as much political influence out of it as possible. Now there is a good chance his Speakership will be consumed by it. He is living out his own little French Revolution and the Committee of Public Safety will come for him sooner or later. As Tom Edsall noted,
John Boehner is just the kind of Republican leader the hard right dislikes – a deal maker, a compromiser. The Republican primary electorate, with its hold on a solid block of Republican representatives and its ability to recruit and promote challengers, now has Boehner trapped. 
All of which begs the question, what can a normal Republican do under such circumstances? On this question, I think the period of the Civil War offers an illuminating parallel. In the 1850s, the strain of ideological politics was too great for the party system. The Whigs crumbled by the middle of the decade. The Democrats survived, but split into sectional factions in 1860, which (arguably) set the table for Lincoln's electoral victory. At the 1860 Democratic Convention in Charleston, South Carolina, the delegates could not agree on the issue of slavery in the territories. Some die-hard Southerners demanded a plank endorsing the Dred Scott decision. Stephen Douglas, the odds-on favorite to win the nomination, had built his career on the policy of "popular sovereignty," which he had last defended in his 1858 debate with Abraham Lincoln at Freeport. He and his supporters refused such a plank. The Southerners, called "Fire-Eaters" for their belligerent extremism, (a moniker far more appropriate to the current right-wing of the GOP than "Tea Partiers"), walked out of the convention. Weeks later, most Democrats reconvened in Baltimore to nominate Douglas. The Southerners met separately in Baltimore and elected John C. Breckinridge. Here's what Douglas's home town newspaper had to say about it:


The modern GOP seems headed for just such a split. Consider what Podhoretz had to say towards the end of his column about the far right of the GOP:
When I interact with these conservatives, they say they don’t care about the GOP; what they care about are conservative ideas.

They’re right not to assign special glory or power to a political organization and to hold ideas above party. But here’s the condundrum: There is only one electoral vehicle for conservative ideas in the United States — the Republican Party
Exactly, there's only one electoral vehicle... at the moment. But it may prove to be that the bonds holding the Republican Party together will break, if not in this crisis than in the next crisis they create. I used to think the Tea Party might break off from the GOP and form their own right wing party. Now I don't think so... why would they? They have already demonstrated their superb ability to control the GOP as it currently exists. Now it seems more likely that moderate Republicans would split and form their own independent or center-right party. Harold Meyerson suggests just such a possibility in the Washington Post. The major threat all moderate Republicans fear at the moment is getting primaried. Filing as an Independent could go a long way to erasing that threat.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Shutdown Politics and The Princess Bride

Like everyone else, I've been watching the course of events leading the government into shutdown with that strange mixture of disbelief and utter lack of surprise. I can't believe we're at this point, but of course I can believe were at this point. Critical government dysfunction is what happens when extremists drive politics. And by "extremists" I don't just mean those 40 or so right-wing members of the House of Representatives; I mean the grassroots organizations that have offered critical support to these candidates and the right-wing voters who have sent them to Washington with their blessing to end government as we know it. James Fallows is quite right when, in a recent post, he noted that this isn't another story of "Washington Dysfunction." It is the decades-long story of one part of the entire electorate moving steadily towards reactionary radicalism.

Fallows, by the way, recently argued the same point I made in starting this blog:
In case the point is not clear yet: there is no post-Civil War precedent for what the House GOP is doing now. It is radical, and dangerous for the economy and our process of government, and its departure from past political disagreements can't be buffed away or ignored. If someone can think of a precedent after the era of John C. Calhoun, shown above in Mathew Brady's famous portrait, let me know.
Dark times. The repercussions of the shutdown are serious enough and the threat to the debt ceiling is even scarier. Yet (and I ask your forgiveness in advance for the rest of this post)... I can't help but find some levity in the buffoonish manner in which the Republican players in this drama have gotten themselves stuck. It's like they all got into the clown car (dragging the country with them), and now they're so tightly jammed inside no one can open the door.

Jonathan Chait wrote a sobering piece for the "Daily Intelligencer" about the shutdown, the debt ceiling, and the consequences when someone takes hostages without a plan. He likens the current crisis to the Coen brother's classic Fargo:
Boehner resembles William H. Macy’s character in Fargo, who concocts a simple plan to have his wife kidnapped and skim the proceeds, failing to think a step forward about what happens once she’s actually seized by violent criminals. He doesn’t intend for her to be harmed, but also has no ability to control the plan once he’s set it in motion. In the end, Boehner's Speakership is likely to end up in the wood chipper, anyway.
It's a wonderful comparison, particularly since Boehner's pathetic desperation is mirrored in every William H. Macy facial expression, but I've been thinking of parallels to a different hostage movie: the Rob Reiner classic that every child of the 80s knows by heart, The Princess Bride. Republicans in Congress have a lot in common with the trio of hostage-takers in that film. Like the hapless (though likeable) characters Inigo and Fezzik, many GOPers are well-intentioned career politicians dragooned into this crazy right wing crusade not because they believe in it, but because events swept them into a plot beyond their's (or anyone's) comprehension. The GOP adversary is the Man In Black, an antagonist whose identity is a matter of some debate, even among them: is it Obamacare? the federal debt? the Government? the Democrats? Obama himself? or is he just some local fisherman, out for a pleasure cruise at night in eel infested waters?

Whatever the answer, the hardliners keep pushing the Inigos and the Fezziks among them to employ some nasty tactics to destroy the threat, and that doesn't sit well with them. When Peter King of New York heard about Ted Cruz's absurd idea to deep-six government funding, he argued
I still think we should try to repeal the bill. But you repeal it the same way you passed it. You get bills through both houses of Congress, and you get the president to sign it. The only way we are going to do that is by electing more Republicans and winning the presidential election.
Or is he a Rat of Unusual Size?
To use Fezzik's vocabulary, yes that "would be more sportsmanlike." But King isn't in a position to author any plan. Ted Cruz is the crazy Sicilian, Vizzini in this scenario, the "mastermind" behind the hostage crisis. Each time one tactic failed, he thought up a new and more desperate one on the fly. As The New York Times reported:
The Republican leaders’ seat-of-the-pants strategy also left some Republicans baffled. “You would have to assume there is a strategy here,” said Representative Devin Nunes, Republican of California.
Nope. Not so much. Inconceivable, right? And now they are at an impasse, just as eventually Vizzini and the Man in Black are stuck facing one another in their "battle of wits to the death." Who will drink the poisoned wine? The House right-wing extremists keeps pretending to have leverage in this wacky confrontation, what Brian Beutler calls the "dumbest extortion attempt ever." They keep gesturing, shouting, and rearranging the goblets as if any of that means anything. But they, and some of their less astute defenders in the press, don't seem to realize what everyone else already knows: that every glass on the table is poisoned and the Democrats are immune. It is of no small significance that the entire Democratic caucus has not exhibited one sign of disunity. The Republicans cannot say the same.

It's also worth noting that even after Vizzini drinks the wine and croaks, we'll all still be caught racing through the Fire Swamp, but maybe we shouldn't pursue the movie parallel too closely. This one probably doesn't have a fairy-tale ending.