Category Archives: Political science

Maybe the terrorist who killed Foley was a British subject, but there’s no way he was a ‘Westerner’

News reports such as this one challenge our convictions about citizenship and identity in a modern, pluralistic, liberal democracy:

The beheading of an American journalist at the hands of a London-accented extremist prompted deep reckoning among Britons on Wednesday over the particularly vicious role their countrymen are playing in the destabilization of the Middle East.

Security officials in London have been sounding the alarm for more than a year over the large number of foreigners in Syria, with the chief of Scotland Yard telling reporters last week that about 500 Britons are among the thousands of Westerners who have joined the fight….

I’ll confess right now that my first reaction is one that is unworthy of someone who prizes living in a pluralistic society. My first thought is, “That was no Englishman. That was a foreigner who had lived in England.”

But then, I have to correct myself: If Scotland Yard says there are “500 Britons” fighting for ISIS, then I have to take it to me that they hold British passports (I sincerely doubt that the Yard is referring to the old ethnic identity of Briton, as in the people who lived in Albion before the Angles and the Saxons showed up.)

And if they hold UK passports, then they are Brits. They are British subjects, with the same rights and privileges as Sir Paul McCartney or Hugh Laurie or David Cameron. That’s the way it is, and the way it should be. To say they are less English (or less British) than James Bond because they belonged to a culture that made them likely to become Islamist terrorists is to deny what separates us from the cultural fascists of ISIS.

However, all of that said… I still don’t see how they, or the 100 or so Americans among the terrorists, can be called “Westerners.” That implies a cultural orientation, one which these fighters categorically and viciously reject. Western culture is something they are against, presumably. They may hold passports from Western nations, but everything they are cries out against all that is Western — including our pious, correct insistence that legally, they are just as British as Monty Python.

Terrorists such as these challenge our vocabulary. We must choose our words carefully, as we are trying to define a new thing, a thing that if it had its way would kill us all. A decidedly unWestern thing…

Iraq is a crisis for POTUS. So is Ukraine. Ferguson is not.

OK, I sort of said this, in an oblique way, back in this post (which I thought would lead to a great conversation, but which y’all completely ignored).

But I’m going to say it again because I got worked up on the subject over the weekend.

Saturday morning, as we were getting ready to go up to visit Old Salem over the weekend, by way of celebrating our 40th anniversary Sunday, I happened to read this piece in The Washington Post:

President Obama may receive more criticism for vacationing during a crisis

When President Obama emerged after a night of dancing, surf and turf, and partying in Martha’s Vineyard to address rioting and aggressive displays of police behavior in Ferguson, Mo., he said there is no “excuse for violence against police.” But, he added, “there’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests.”

That was enough to anger a group representing police across the country, which argued that Obama ought not weigh in on how the authorities are carrying out their legal duties more than a thousand miles away….

What do you mean, “vacationing during a crisis”? How is what is happening in Ferguson, MO, a “crisis” for POTUS. There’s no way that it is. It’s a state and local matter. If the Missouri National Guard were to fail to keep order there, and the unrest started spilling into other states, it could conceivably become a federal matter. But it wasn’t one when I was reading that on Saturday.

Then, moments later, I read this:

Ukraine forces destroy most of a column of Russian military vehicles, president says

 Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Friday that Ukrainian forces had attacked and destroyed part of a column of Russian military vehicles on Ukrainian territory, a step that, if confirmed, would represent a significant escalation of hostilities between Ukraine and Russia.

Poroshenko told British Prime Minister David Cameron that “the majority” of a column of Russian military vehicles “had been destroyed by the Ukrainian artillery at night,” his office said in a statement. The announcement came as NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Friday that the defense alliance had seen an “incursion” into Ukraine the previous night….

Now you see, an open shooting war between Russia and Ukraine — that is a crisis that is within the realm of what we have a president to deal with.

A crisis of even more immediate concern — or at least, more immediate involvement — is the U.S. military operations against ISIS in Iraq.

If I were inclined to criticize the president for going on vacation during a crisis (which I’m not), I would moan about him playing golf while American pilots are flying close air support for the Iraqi army.

Because, you know, I respect the division between federal and state and local responsibilities.

Increasingly in our world today, we think that because we see something in the news, thanks to modern communications technology, it is somehow our business — and therefore the president’s business.

But that’s not the way a republic with enumerated responsibilities for government officials is supposed to work.

The first and foremost reason we have a federal government is so that the United States, as one nation, can deal with foreign nations — war and peace, diplomacy, trade, immigration; those sorts of things.

I expect POTUS to concern himself with such things as those. And I expect anyone who wants to be POTUS to concern herself with those things — as Hillary Clinton does, and Rand Paul does not. Just to try again to get you interested in that previous post…

Pew thinks I fit in the ‘faith and family left.’ Interesting…

When I saw the headline at The Fix, “Proud to be an American? You’re probably not a true liberal,” I thought, Well, that’s yet another reason why I’m not a liberal.

At least, not as the term is popularly defined. There are a lot of points of alienation between me and today’s “liberals” beyond the fact that Michele Obama set my teeth on edge when she said, “for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country…”

And yet, the study upon which the piece was based, by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, says I fit in a category that has “left” in its name.

Specifically, it thinks I fit in the “Faith and Family Left,” one of eight “political typologies” into which it separates Americans. The category is described thusly:

The Faith and Family Left combine strong support for activist government with conservative attitudes on many social issues. They are very racially diverse – this is the only typology group that is “majority-minority.” The Faith and Family Left generally favor increased government aid for the poor even if it adds to the deficit and believe that government should do more to solve national problems. Most oppose same-sex marriage and legalizing marijuana and most say religion and family are at the center of their lives. Compare groups on key issues.

So, Pew thinks I’m a black preacher or something. OK, I’m certainly more comfortable being that that I am as “Solid Liberal” or “Steadfast Conservative.” I’m even pleased with the “Faith and Family” part, but I could do without the “left” part. Because you know how the current “left” and “right” repel me.

Pew’s questionnaire forced me into that box with questions that had no right answer. Take this one, for instance:

bad choices

Like the Kulturkampf battle between faith and science, this is framed as a false and unnecessary choice. I don’t hold either of those positions. I clicked on the second one because I HAD to choose. But as you know, my belief is that we have not given up privacy and freedom in order to be safe from terrorism — which the libertarians believe is false. Since we haven’t been asked to do that, then it obviously isn’t necessary.

But a casual observer would read that response and think that I’m in the Edward Snowden camp, arguing against surveillance programs. Which is 180 degrees from where I am, as you know. I think the NSA programs are fine. I just don’t think they intrude on our privacy or freedom.

What I needed was an option like, “Our current security measures are fine, and don’t infringe our privacy or freedom. Anyone who thinks otherwise is deluded.” That I could have clicked on happily.

There were a bunch of questions like that. Which causes me to doubt the value of the survey.

And yet, when I had glanced at the categories before I took the survey, my first impression was that if I fit in any of them, it would be the one called “Faith and Family” leaving out the “left” bit.

So maybe there’s something to this method after all.

Maybe you should take it, and see where you end up. Here’s the link.

The 2014 Political Typology: Polarized Wings, a Diverse Middle

SC does well on voter participation, less well on some other measures of civic engagement

Benjamin Thrutchley with the National Conference on Citizenship was kind enough to share the following release with me today, at the suggestion of my friend and long-ago boss Paula Ellis.

Paula, who was managing editor at The State back when I was still in the newsroom in the early ’90s, is well aware of my communitarian tendencies, or at least of my love for wonkish musings about civic virtue, the commonweal, etc.

Here’s the release, and here’s a story about the report in the Charleston paper. My comments on the report will follow:

South Carolinians are active voters, but among the least likely to take action after leaving the voting booth

University of South Carolina Upstate and NCoC

Release South Carolina Civic Health Index

Spartanburg, SC  – Today, University of South Carolina Upstate and the National Conference on Citizenship released the South Carolina Civic Health Index. The report reveals how residents in South Carolina engage in important civic activities such as voting, volunteering, and interacting with neighbors. This type of engagement is critical because it is linked to the economic and personal health of individuals and the strength of our democracy. Overall, the report finds South Carolina’s civic health to be stable, but with key areas of weakness in political participation and civic social connections.

“South Carolinians are some of the most active voters in the country,” said Abraham Goldberg, the report’s author and a professor at University of South Carolina Upstate. “But, voting is only one small piece of our civic life and our state has some work to do. This report shows that too many of us aren’t likely to stay politically engaged after leaving the voting booth and that too many of us are disconnected from our communities and each other.”

Compared to the 50 states and the District of Columbia, South Carolina ranked among the highest communities for traditional forms of political involvement such as voter registration (13th), voting in the 2010 mid-term elections (14th), voting in the 2012 presidential election (19th). However they ranked near the bottom for other forms of political action such as boycotting products (46th) and contacting public officials (48th). The state also ranked in the bottom half of all states when it came to key social strength indicators such as exchanging favors with neighbors frequently (30th), having trust in neighbors (38th) and attending public meetings about town or school affairs (44th).

“This report is one example of how USC Upstate, through the Metropolitan Studies Institute and numerous other venues, achieves our metropolitan mission of engaging with communities across South Carolina, said University of South Carolina Upstate Chancellor Tom Moore. “The South Carolina Civic Health Index and its recommendations can serve as a call to action to increase political and community engagement, educational attainment, and civic involvement that will improve the quality of life for all South Carolinians.”

The report also reveals a strong correlation between educational attainment and almost every measure of political participation and civic involvement analyzed in the Civic Health Index. For example, at a 5 to 1 ratio, college graduates were more likely to contact public officials than those without a high school diploma. Additionally, over 43% of college graduates frequently discuss politics with friends and family, while only 16.3% without a high school diploma do so.

“University of South Carolina Upstate is doing critical work by starting a conversation to strengthen civic life South Carolina,” said Ilir Zherka, executive director of the National Conference on Citizenship. “While this report reveals clear challenges to South Carolina’s civic health, especially around younger and less educated residents, South Carolinians have a strong civic foundation and the skills to tackle these challenges.”

The report data was obtained primarily from the 2012 U.S. Census Bureau Current Population Survey on Voting, Volunteering and Civic Engagement. Following are additional key findings from the report:

  • Over 40% of South Carolinians participate in at least one type of organization and almost 10% hold leadership roles as an officer or committee member. The state ranked 22nd for group membership and 37th in leadership rate.
  • South Carolinians rank 7th in the nation for church, synagogue, or mosque participation.
  • The report looked specifically at the civic health of residents 18 – 29 years old. South Carolina’s youth ranked 35th in discussing politics a few times a week or more, 40th in exchanging favors with neighbors frequently, and 45th in belonging to any group. However, young South Carolinians were active voters, ranking 6th for voter turnout in the 2012 presidential election.

“This report is an important first step in building on our civic strengths and addressing our challenges, especially in developing broader political engagement and social connectivity,” said Abraham Goldberg. “We will continue the work started today by disseminating these findings and activating partner organizations across the state to improve civic life in South Carolina. Maintaining strong civic health is vital to sustaining our state’s prosperity and individual well-being.”

The report also includes suggestions for reshaping South Carolina’s civic health. Specifically: 1) Develop urban areas that bring people together and stimulate neighborhood engagement; 2) Foster a culture that values educational attainment; 3) Reach out to willing religious institutions to invite people to participate in nonpartisan political activity and broader community involvement; and, 4) State leaders should consider assembling and empowering a “South Carolina Commission on Youth Civic Engagement.”

###

The National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC) is a congressionally chartered organization dedicated to strengthening civic life in America. We pursue our mission through a cutting-edge civic health initiative, an innovative national service project, and cross-sector conferences. At the core of our efforts is the belief that every person has the ability to help their community and country thrive.

Metropolitan Studies Institute at USC Upstate supports research efforts between USC upstate and the community, enhancing relationships, promoting the reciprocal flow of information and ideas, assisting community and economic development, and increasing the strategic use of the University’s scholarship and outreach capabilities. The MSI engages in select community-based research and assessment projects, notable among them the Spartanburg Community Indicators Project, and partners with community agencies to undertake program evaluations, needs assessments, feasibility studies, and data management projects.

That’s good news about our voter participation — 19th in the nation in the 2012 presidential election, with young voters ranking 6th. And while the Post and Courier report says that’s “even though the state is not a presidential battleground and there’s relatively less campaigning here,” I don’t find it surprising. No, there’s not a lot of suspense over which way we’ll go in November, but I think our extreme national importance as an early primary state gets voters interested every four years — one reason why I’d hate for us to lose that status.

And I’m not that terribly concerned about the supposed dropoff of participation after elections, especially when that is measured by such dubious factors as participation in boycotts, which I seldom see as positive engagement. Trying to do financial harm to someone you disagree with seems to me highly unlikely to foster constructive dialogue. We have enough confrontation in our politics, which I think is one thing that turns many people off to the whole process.

Also, as a small-R republican — as a firm believer in representative democracy, rather than the direct kind — I see voting as the citizen’s first and greatest duty. Between elections, I see the voter’s main job as being paying attention to what the elected officials do, so that he or she can vote intelligently next time. And, of course, engaging in civil dialogues with friends and acquaintances, as we do here.

And I’m torn about the “contacting public officials” thing. In theory, it would be great if politicos heard from all of their constituents, including the most thoughtful ones — or at least a representative sample. But in practice, they tend to hear more from the angriest constituents (see, for instance, “Tea Party“), or the most organized, and resonate to their messages. And while, like a broken clock, the angry people are occasionally right, they aren’t right often enough to reassure me.

Of course, if there’s an increase in elected officials being contacted by the kinds of citizens who read reports on civic engagement and worry about them, that would most likely be a good thing.

Finally, I found it interesting that this report came the same day as this front-page of The State. It’s jam-packed with well-covered news (nice job, my friends), but it’s all of the sort bound to increase voters’ cynicism and sense of alienation from public institutions…

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Those obnoxious, unconscionable primary ‘referenda’

I got rattled and did a stupid thing in the voting booth yesterday.

I had been unaware of the fact that there would be mock-referendum questions on the GOP primary ballot. So they took me by surprise. (The Democrats had their own questions; I just didn’t see those.)

One of the questions on my ballot. (Sorry about the glare.)

One of the questions on my ballot. (Sorry about the glare.)

One asked whether unborn children should be protected by due process. The other was about doing away with the state income tax. Well, as you know, my main objection to abortion on demand is that it allows a single individual — and an extremely interested individual, the sort who would have to recuse herself were she a judge or juror in a court — to make a unilateral, irrevocable decision regarding life and death, one from which there is no appeal. So yeah, due process. And the last thing our tax system needs is to be thrown further out of whack by completely eliminating a leg of the three-legged stool.

So, since I was being asked to make a decision now, without further reflection, I said “yes” and “no.”

But I was uncomfortable with both answers, and went out feeling uneasy about them. And the reason why didn’t hit me until I was in the car: I shouldn’t have answered either of them!

I shouldn’t have answered them for two reasons:

  1. I don’t vote for candidates when I haven’t had the chance to go through a careful discernment process before going to the polls. It is my firm policy to leave those races blank. I refuse to be one of those careless, irresponsible voters who decides on the basis of name recognition or spur-of-the-moment gut feeling. So why would I do any differently with ballot questions?
  2. This is the big one: I am deeply, profoundly opposed to these gimmicks on primary ballots. There’s no way I should have participated in the farce in any way, shape or form.

First, I do not believe in direct democracy; it’s a terrible way to make important public decisions. Making decisions by plebiscite may not be the worst form of government, but it’s right up there. Or down there.

It’s not that the people are stupid and legislators necessarily wise. It’s the process itself. When you boil an issue down to a “yes” or “no” answer, you have usually oversimplified it, and guaranteed a bad policy decision by ruling out an in-between course. Second, the deliberative process (even though nowadays, with fixed partisan positions, precious little actual deliberation goes on) takes longer than a snap, thumbs-up or thumbs-down decision. A person who has days or weeks to think about an issue while it makes its way through a legislative body has far more time to study the issue, to talk with others about it, and think about it himself, and thereby make a more nuanced decision in the end.

Electing representatives to go through that process is part of the specialization that is a key characteristic of an advanced, modern economy. We are not independent yeoman farmers who produce all we need from our own land (and we weren’t in the late 18th century, despite what Thomas Jefferson may have fantasized). We may be smart people; we may be brain surgeons. But brain surgeons depend on other people to spend time learning to grow their food or build their smartphones or repair their air conditioners or, for that matter, operate on portions of anatomy other than their brains.

Most of us are too busy earning a living to study all the ins and outs and nuances of each issue, or engage in debate with people with differing views on the subject. So we elect people to go spend time doing all those things. They may be no smarter than we are, but that’s their job, and we rely on them to do it, or we elect someone else.

Second, those mock referenda may actually fool a lot of voters into thinking they’re deciding something — that it actually is a plebiscite — when they most emphatically are not. Which is another recipe for making people even more discontented with their government, when they see that what they voted for doesn’t happen.

Third, worse, the opposite can happen — partisans will actually use such ballot results as a guide to how they should vote, even how they must vote (because unfortunately, too few politicians understand that they are supposed to go and study and think and make decisions, rather than vote according to which way the wind is blowing). And you get calcified, immutable positions taken by lawmakers who think they don’t have the right to think for themselves and make a better decision.

That was the case with the most offensive of these mock referenda ever — the question on the 1994 Republican primary ballot asking whether voters wanted to keep the Confederate flag flying atop the State House dome.

It was a purely party-building thing. This was the year of the Angry White Male in national politics, as you will recall, and this was seen as a way to entice said males — those of the “Fergit, Hell!” subgroup – to come out and choose a GOP ballot. It worked — or something did. The AWMs turned out in droves, and of course voted to keep the flag up there.

It you’ll further recall, it was right after that election that the GOP took over the SC House. The election itself almost got them there, then some defections completed the job. This was the year when I had been stirring up unrest against the flag (that year was when I started doing that, as it was my first on the editorial board), so one of the first things the new GOP House did — citing the results of their mock referendum — was push through a bill that put flying the flag into law. Before that, a governor could have gotten up one morning and decided to tell the building maintenance not to raise the flag, and that would have been that (at least, in one optimistic, theoretical scenario). After that, the Legislature would have to act for anything to happen on the flag.

So, yeah, in case you were wondering — it’s not just a matter of violating abstract principles of good government. These things can do actual, long-lasting harm to our state…

Here’s why primaries should be COMPLETELY open

Anything strike you about this release from state Treasurer Curtis Loftis?

Dear Friends,

The citizens of South Carolina have chosen to re-hire me for another term. I am humbled, enthused and energized by their trust and approval – and I am thankful for the opportunity to provide proper stewardship of their money for another four years.

In 2010, I promised to make transparency and accountability the cornerstones of my efforts to protect your money. I am proud to say that I have done just that. Some insiders and special interests are not happy with me, but I don’t work for them – I work for you!

Our campaign was positive. We traveled extensively and listened to the voters – and we heard them loud and clear. The people want their money and assets protected, the retirement fund to be transparent and well governed, and fraud, waste and abuse in state government to be exposed.

Their mandate is simple, and we understand it. So tonight, we celebrate. Tomorrow, we go back to work with only one goal in mind – to serve the people of South Carolina by fulfilling their expectations.

I want to offer my sincere gratitude to all my supporters, volunteers, friends, and family. Your support has made all of this possible and I look forward to what we can accomplish in the coming years!

Sincerely,

Curtis Loftis
Treasurer, State of South Carolina

Anyone who chose a Democratic ballot yesterday is likely to say, “What? I didn’t vote for him — or even see him on the ballot.” And they won’t in November, either.

Curtis Loftis has, indeed, just been re-elected — by voters in the Republican primary, and no one else.

That’s fine, as long as everybody got a say. But not everyone did.

That’s why voters should have the power to vote in both primaries, and not have to choose one or the other. There is no good reason why someone who wanted to vote for Brad Hutto for US Senate yesterday should have to surrender his right to have a say in who will be state treasurer for the next four years, when those of us who preferred to help Lindsey Graham avoid a runoff did have that right. It’s just wrong.

OK, tell me again how direct, popular election of POTUS would make candidates more interested in SC

The queue at my polling place, November 2008.

The queue at my polling place, November 2008.

I’m directing my question at Bud and others who believe we should abandon the electoral college and choose the president directly, by popular vote.

I read this piece yesterday in The Slatest that tells of another movement to bring that about, or as Slate says in its headline with its usual sober impartiality and self-restraint, “U.S. Takes Small Step Toward Having System of Electing Its President That Actually Makes Sense:”

The best case for passing the law might be this map from the National Popular Vote group, which shows how many 2012 presidential campaign events were held in each state between the party conventions and the election:

screen_shot_20140416_at_3.25.59_pmNational Popular Vote

You’ll notice that the majority of states never saw Romney or Obama at all, because their electoral votes were already foregone conclusions. And when a president can get elected by basically ignoring the specific needs and interests of most of the states in the country, that is, like, pretty messed up.

So here’s, like, my question: How would this make candidates want to spend more time in SC?

I mean, I get why Democrats would like it personally, because it means that their votes would actually count in the general election for the first time in a generation.

But would candidates actually be much more interested in coming here during those few weeks between the conventions and Election Day? When it’s all about the national total, wouldn’t they concentrate most on the heaviest concentrations of population — the Northeast, California, Florida?

Sure, every vote they got here would matter, would count toward the total, whereas now Democrats know there’s no point in trying to win here, and Republicans take us for granted. So time here wouldn’t be wasted from the candidates’ point of view, but would it really be the best use of their time? And wouldn’t they prefer to spend their extensive, but finite, media dollars in New York and Chicago than Columbia? (Or would they only buy national media? I’m not sure what would be more cost-effective for them.)

Maybe the answer is obvious, and my head’s just so full of antihistamines today that I’m not seeing it. So help me out.

 

Cumulative voting might be worth trying…

… but it’s not a complete cure to extremism in politics.

Michael Rodgers made a reference to Cindi Scoppe’s column earlier in the week advocating cumulative voting as a cure to the extremism that single-member districts tend to foster.

The problem is this: Lawmakers draw safe districts for themselves — or rather, for members of their own party. They draw them so safe that the general election becomes meaningless. The primary of the dominant party becomes the election. That puts the loudest, most passionate elements in that one party in the driver’s seat. From that point on, representatives who want to get elected are constantly kowtowing to the more extreme elements in their own party, and couldn’t care less about what moderates in their own party, or independents, and certainly not members of the opposition, want them to do.

And so we get entire bodies of elected officials — Congress being the most extreme example of the sickness — who are there not for the good of the country, but as agents of the most extreme elements in their respective parties. Instead of a deliberative process, you get a perpetual mudball fight, and government becomes dysfunctional.

(Cindi traces the problem back to the race-based districting that was the unintended consequence of the Voting Rights Act. That, too, is a problem, in that it trains representatives to think of themselves as representing only constituents of a particular race. Which can indeed lead to a type of extremism, and has done so in South Carolina. But a system in which drawing districts to protect incumbency is allowed by the courts is a broader problem. In any case, when legislators go through the process of choosing their constituents, which is what redistricting has become, they do both of those things — choose by race and by party.)

Cindi has long favored a creative solution to the problem:

The key is to return to multi-member districts — the norm before the Voting Rights Act essentially outlawed them because they shut out minority voters — but with a twist that prevents the dilution of minority voting strength while reclaiming the centrist, community-focused effect of the old multi-member districts.

Let’s take the Richland County Council for an example of how this would work. Under cumulative voting, candidates for all 11 council seats would run countywide. Voters would get 11 votes, like they did in the old multi-member districts. But they could divide the votes any way they wanted — casting one in each race, giving all 11 votes to a single candidate or doling them out in any other combination. Under a modified version called limited-transfer voting, voters would have just one vote, to cast in whichever race was most important to them. In other words, voters could work together across the county to essentially create the “district” they lived in.

It wouldn’t be practical to have statewide races for legislative seats, but we could make Richland County a four-seat Senate district, Lexington County a seven-seat House district. We could even make Richland and Lexington county an eight-seat Senate district.

These modified proportional systems have been promoted for years as a way to stop fixating on race in our elections and our government, but they also would empower all voters and give us a greater sense of ownership in our government, because elected officials wouldn’t dare to write off those they consider the partisan or racial or ideological minority in their district. The fact that county residents could vote for incumbents or challengers for any or all of the seven House seats in Lexington County means the representatives would need to appeal to all of them….

I’ve always thought the solution sounded a bit confusing. But I think it would be worth trying.

That said, cumulative voting would not solve all of our problems with extremism in SC. It would do nothing, directly, to address one of the examples Cindi cites in her column:

A Theatre de l’Absurde production starring a U.S. senator who could easily win a general election, no matter who his opponent, being seriously challenged in his party primary by obscure opponents who can most charitably be called political outliers…

Even without districts of any kind, radicalism has long been a feature of SC politics. The only cure for Lindsey Graham’s problem would be a reform that would have little chance of being enacted: Repeal the 17th Amendment, and have U.S. senators elected by the Legislatures again, as the Framers intended (House members were supposed to be elected by the people; senators were supposed to represent states, not bodies of voters). But of course, that would only work reliably after you do something to make the Legislature more moderate — something like what Cindi suggests.

How the media contribute to political, governmental dysfunction

Meant to mention that I liked the point (in boldface) made in this piece in the WSJ yesterday, headlined “Obama Is No Lame Duck“:

There are more than 1,000 days until the 2016 elections, about as long as the entire Kennedy administration. But you’d never guess it from today’s political discourse. How badly will Bridgegate damage Chris Christie’s race for the Republican presidential nomination? Will Republican opposition research undermine the narrative of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton‘s forthcoming memoirs? These are the “issues” that dominate the conversation.

A lengthy new profile of President Obama in the New Yorker feeds this tendency by adopting a distinctly elegiac tone. As New Yorker editor David Remnick puts it, “Obama has three years left, but it’s not difficult to sense a politician with an acute sense of time, a politician devising ways to widen his legacy without the benefit of any support from Congress. . . . And so there is in him a certain degree of reduced ambition, a sense that even well before the commentariat starts calling him a lame duck he will spend much of his time setting an agenda that can be resolved only after he has retired to the life of a writer and post-President.”

Call me naïve and old-fashioned, but I object to this entire way of thinking. Policy debates may bore the press, but that’s no excuse for defaulting to horse-race coverage. Only journalistic complicity can allow the permanent campaign to drive out concern for governance. For their part, elected officials should understand that they cannot afford to leave the world’s greatest democracy on autopilot for the next three years. When it comes to advancing a national agenda, surely there’s a midpoint between grandiosity and resignation….

Yep, that’s what the media do — and have long done. And the press are almost as guilty as the broadcast people.

News people tend to treat politics like sports, because it’s simple — it fits into the idiotic binary view of the world, where there are only two teams and two choices, such as winners and losers — and because it’s easy, and fun. You don’t have to think very hard about who’s going to win the next election. So you write about that and write about it and build up this pitch of excitement like the buildup to the big game, and then you cover the election, and extensively cover the aftermath of the election.

And then, you start writing about the next election. And everything that happens, from events to scandals to policy debates, are couched in terms of how they will affect candidate’s chances in the next election. (James Fallows wrote an excellent book on this subject back in the early ’90s, called Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy. I reviewed it at the time. Nothing has gotten better since he wrote it.books

And so we get this foolishness of treating a president as a lame duck from the moment he wins a second term, because hey, he has no election coming up — which means all too many reporters just can’t come up with a reason to be interested in what he does. If it doesn’t have an impact on his electoral chances, it has no meaning to them. Oh, they’ll try to work up enthusiasm about the unrelated subject of how his party will do in the next election, but their simple little hearts just aren’t really into it.

(I say “unrelated” because it’s unrelated, and decidedly uninteresting, to me. But in their simplistic, dichotomous worldview, one member of a party’s fate has tremendous meaning to other members of that party, because there are only two kinds of people in the world, rather than six billion kinds, and only two ways of thinking.)

Anyway, this is the media’s big contribution to the sickness in our political system, and the dysfunction of our government. By taking this either-or, column A or column B, approach (when in reality there are thousands, millions, an infinity of possibilities in each policy question), they make it difficult for Americans to frame political questions in any way other than hyperpartisan terms.

Video: Sheheen explaining his restructuring bill in 2008

I was looking for a picture of Vincent Sheheen to go with the last post, and ran across this video clip that I had forgotten.

It’s from the meeting on January 29, 2008, when he unveiled his restructuring plan to Cindi Scoppe and me, in the editorial board room at The State.

It’s short — the camera I used then would only shoot video for three minutes at a time — and there are several other clips from after this one that I did not upload.

But I share this one because in it, he shows how well he understood the actual power situation in South Carolina.

When talking about South Carolina’s unique situation as the “Legislative State” (even back in 1949, when some other Southern states had some similar such arrangements, political scientist V. O. Key called South Carolina that in his classic. Southern Politics in State and Nation), we tend to use a lazy shorthand. We say that SC lawmakers don’t want to surrender power to the governor.

That glosses over an important truth, one that we elaborated on in the Power Failure series back in 1991, but which I don’t stop often enough to explain any more: It’s that the Legislature, too, lacks the power to exert any effective control over state government. This leads to a government in which no one is in charge, and no one can be held accountable.

There was a time, long ago — pre-WWII, roughly, and maybe for awhile between then and the 1960s, which saw expansions of government programs on a number of levels — when lawmakers actually could run executive agencies, at least in a loose, informal way. On the state level, agencies answered to boards and commissions whose members were appointed by lawmakers. On the local level, they ran things more directly, calling all the shots. This was before county councils were empowered (more or less) in the mid-70s.

But as state agencies grew, they became more autonomous. Oh, they kept their heads down and didn’t anger powerful lawmakers, especially at budget time, but there was generally no effective way for legislators to affect their day-to-day operations. And while lawmakers appointed the members of boards and commissions, they lacked the power to remove them if they did something to attract legislative ire.

And on the local level, the advent of single-member districts broke up county delegations as coherent local powers. Yes, we have vestiges of that now — the Richland County elections mess is an illustration of this old system, as is the Richland recreation district and other special purpose districts, all legislative creations — but largely, they’re out of the business of running counties.

Increasingly in recent decades, the main power wielded by the Legislature has been a negative power — the ability to block things from happening, rather than initiate sweeping changes. And that’s what the General Assembly is best at — blocking change, for good or ill. That’s why the passage of this Department of Administration bill is such a milestone.

Anyway, while he doesn’t say all that stuff I just said, in this clip, Sheheen shows that he understands that no one is actually in charge, and that someone needs to be, so that someone can be held accountable. Or at least, that’s the way I hear it.

You may wonder why I think it remarkable that a state senator would exhibit such understanding of the system. Well… that’s just rarer than you may think.

Nice to see Tom Davis backing away from nullification

I’ve always seen Tom Davis as a (mostly) reasonable man, and have been distressed to see his drift into extremism over the last couple of years.

So I’m pleased to see him take a deliberate step away from the antebellum notion of Nullification:

Davis,TomCOLUMBIA, SC — A Republican lawmaker says he plans to take the “nullification” out of the Obamacare nullification bill before the state Senate….

“The conversation really has gotten off the rails a little bit,” Davis said Wednesday, after holding three public hearings across the state that drew hundreds. “Everybody talks about nullification. This isn’t nullification. We can’t nullify.”…

Amen to that, senator. No, we can’t. That’s been pretty clear ever since 1865, if not sooner.

But it’s a bit disingenuous for Tom to act like other people have somehow gone “off the rails” with all this nullification talk:

  • I remember his presence at this Ron Paul press conference at which nullification was spoken of approvingly.
  • Then there was his speech at a… Nullification Rally… at which he praised John C. Calhoun as “a great man who has been maligned far too long.” And by the way, Tom himself called it a “nullification rally” when he thanked someone for putting up video of his speech.

So… Tom no longer wants to nullify Obamacare. However, he does want to sabotage it, to do all he can to make it fail. Which is not the most positive attitude I’ve ever heard of with regard to respecting laws legitimately passed by the Congress.

But this is progress…

The Shandonistas strike back: Strong-mayor was stopped by insiders. Again.

During a lively discussion on a previous post, Phillip Bush wrote:

You should be happy, Brad. The State’s article today alluded to the “unusual bedfellows” who were joined in opposition to this measure, it crossed all sorts of party/ideology lines. (For that matter, so did the Yes side)….

In reply to that, and in response to a comment from Kathryn Fenner about us “outsiders” who wanted the change, I wrote the following (and then decided it should be a separate post rather than a comment)…

Oh, DANG! In copying the above comment from Phillip, I lost it! OK, I’ll try to reconstruct it…

This reform was defeated by insiders, no question about it. Insiders who managed to persuade a majority of the few who turned out to vote with them. So congratulations to them for winning. Again. The strategy of having a completely unnecessary extra election in order to separate the issue from the re-election of a popular mayor worked. (The idea that an extra month was needed for discernment, after all these years of discussion, was risible.)

But as for the idea that I should be happy…

It’s facile to say, look, there are Democrats and Republicans, black and white people, working together on this. Those are granfalloons, within this context. As I’m sure Bokonon would tell you if he lived here, as meaningless as granfalloons can be the rest of the time, they are particularly irrelevant to a city election in Columbia. The group I saw aligned against this was, to my eye, homogeneous — a true karass, to keep the Vonnegut theme going.

This was, on one level, a case of the Shandonistas striking back. Look at the chief apostles of “No,” who celebrated their victory in the ultimate Columbia insider salon: Kit Smith’s house. Kit herself, Howard Duvall, Rusty DePass, Tameika Devine, Moe Baddourah (a relative newcomer to insiderism, but a very quick study — he changed his mind on strong mayor between the day he was elected and his very first council meeting).

Am I saying these are bad people? Absolutely not. I like and respect all of them. The kind of insider I’m talking about is generally someone who has given much to the community. These are good, dedicated people. But as I say, they have gained, I’ll even say earned, a certain access — through election, or through years of volunteer advocacy — to the current power structure.

Now, the power structure that exists is a feeble thing. It moves slowly and ponderously, and is far better at stopping things from happening than at making them happen. But it is power, and it’s the kind these folks have access to. Power that, let me hasten again to add, all of them want to use for good. But whether you want to do good or ill, in politics, you “dance with the one that brung you.” And this system is the one that “brung” these folks to the point of being able to achieve whatever they have accomplished thus far. They are invested in it.

Meanwhile, strong-mayor is a more open, less controllable, broader, more dynamic system. Empowering a chief executive who has a mandate from a majority of voters increases volatility, makes it more likely that things will happen. Those of us who have enough faith in democracy to believe enough good things will happen to outweigh the bad — and believe in the power of greater transparency (which is a feature of strong-mayor) to correct the bad — tend to favor it. Those who fear the bad that can happen tend to oppose it — especially when they themselves have access to the keys that can occasionally move the present, slower, less dynamic, more conservative system.

Strong-mayor — and Steve Benjamin himself — represent a broader view of what Columbia is and can be, a view that includes all of us who live in the de facto city, all of us whose destinies are tied up with it. Those with a narrower view — who can speak in terms of “them” telling “us” how to run “our” town — will reject it. To them, it’s just far too risky. Interests that don’t have their acutely-tuned sense of the community’s good might have an impact on what happens, and that’s just too uncomfortable.

Phillip says I’m wrong to equate this with the Legislature’s ongoing refusal to empower the executive (and thereby the people who elected the executive). Perhaps he’s right, but I don’t think so. I’ve been here before. When we did the Power Failure series back in the early 90s (which advocated for local reforms as well as statewide ones), I noticed how many really good, smart, dedicated people who cared deeply about South Carolina — officeholders, political operatives, lobbyists for idealistic nonprofits, and so on — reacted negatively to what we were writing. I thought a lot of most of these people. They were people I’d like to have arguing for these reforms rather than against. They were important influencers. So we hosted a series of luncheons — about 30 people at a time — consisting of these vocal opponents, to address their questions and explain why we were doing this. But with most of them, I had trouble selling our idea of cluing the Great Unwashed out there into why South Carolina didn’t work better than it did. And that’s because all of these people had learned to move this system as well as it could be moved, although in limited ways. They knew how things worked, to the extent that they worked, and many of them believed that was enough.

Bottom line, many smart people will see diversity in the successful opposition. But I see what the chief opponents had in common more clearly than their differences.

How to cure gerrymandering: Draw all districts to look like South Carolina

800px-South_Carolina_in_United_States

Easily the most beautifully shaped of all the states.

End of last week, Bryan Caskey shared with me this link to an MSNBC host (apparently, his name is Touré — no last name) seeming to suggest that some red-state U.S. senators were voting more conservatively because they live and govern “in a gerrymandered world.”

Which seemed to suggest that this guy thought that, you know, states were gerrymandered.

This caused Bryan to riff, “Yup. I’m OK with redrawing some state lines, though. Who knows, it might be fun.”

To which I responded, “Not SC, though. It has the most aesthetically pleasing shape of all the states.”

Which it does. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve grooved on SC’s beautiful, kinda-but-not-exactly-regular triangle shape. (There were several irregularly-shaped paving tiles outside my grandparents’ back door, and one of them looked just like SC, which to me had some sort of cosmic significance.) If it were a perfect, equilateral triangle, it would be less beautiful. It’s more of a naturalistic triangle. I like the cockeyed top, which makes it seem to be wearing a hat rakishly tilted to the side.

And then it occurred to me — if all districts (as opposed to states) had to be drawn to look more or less like South Carolina, gerrymandering would be dead. A district that looked like SC in shape terms would also look like real communities in a demographic sense, rather than having these super-white and super-black districts side-by-side.

And there would be relatively few “safe” Democratic and Republican districts. Which means elected representatives on the federal, state and local levels would have to reach out to voters across the political spectrum. Gridlock would end, and sensible, pragmatic legislation would be a commonplace.

And we’d all live in a better country.

I like this idea more and more…

Cindi’s thoughtful piece on SC chief justice contest

Someone was praising Cindi Scoppe’s column today on the contested election for chief justice of the SC Supreme Court, and I agreed: “Yes — Cindi’s probably the only journalist in SC who knows enough even to have the idea of writing it.”

You may be disappointed after that buildup to find that there’s no hard-hitting, simple editorial point in the piece, and she certainly doesn’t take sides between incumbent Jean Toal and challenger Costa Pleicones. The overall point is to lament the system we have for picking justices, and the lack of transparency in it after that one, brief, qualification hearing — which everyone knew that both of these exceptional jurists would pass with flying colors.

What she does is provide perspective on the court and its place in our, um, unusual system in South Carolina.The piece should be required reading for legislators, who will be the voters in this particular election.

The piece does a number of things. First, she explains that this is yet another chapter in Jean Toal’s precedent-breaking career, and I don’t (and she doesn’t) mean that in the facile sense of trailblazer for women, yadda-yadda:

1118photo1

Jean Toal

But things never have been normal where Jean Toal is involved, and by that I’m not referring to the fact that she was South Carolina’s first female justice and chief justice.

In 1988, she became the first non-judge elected to the high court in more than three decades. That happened after ethics questions derailed the candidacy of Circuit Judge Rodney Peeples, who entered the race with more than enough votes sewed up to win.

Eight years later, Mrs. Toal became the first sitting justice since 1893 to be opposed for re-election, when Circuit Judge Tom Ervin challenged her amidst anti-tax groups’ absurd efforts to paint her as a liberal; her support was so overwhelming that he dropped out of the race less than two hours after legislators were allowed to start making commitments.

Now she’s the first chief justice since at least the 1800s to be opposed for re-election…

Clearly, the Legislature will break precedent if it elects Mr. Pleicones. But even if it re-elects Mrs. Toal, the status quo already has been interrupted, making it much easier for lawmakers to break with tradition and skip over Mr. Pleicones and, who knows, perhaps skip over Mr. Beatty, possibly even select a chief justice who isn’t on the court….

In future SC history books, there will likely be quite a few footnotes devoted to Jean Toal.

As I said, while this piece may be interesting to other readers, it should particularly be read by lawmakers. Cindi takes it on herself a lot to put things into perspective for legislators. Someone needs to.

One key thing she explains — and these days we have more and more lawmakers who need this explained — is that there are important issues at stake here, but they have nothing to do with notions of left and right, Democrat and Republican, the way those things are force-fed to us today out of the Beltway:

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Costa Pleicones

Some Republicans in the Legislature — and lots outside, particularly of what we now call the tea-party variety — have been grumbling for years about having a court full of former Democratic legislators.

I suppose it’s understandable that people would be confused about the role that partisan politics plays on the S.C. Supreme Court — none — given the diet of hyperpartisan Washington politics on which a frightening number of South Carolinians feed, forming not only their world views but their state views.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court is in fact composed of two well-defined ideologies, you’d be hard-pressed reading state Supreme Court decisions to guess the partisan or ideological inclinations of the justices. So I was a little disappointed when Justice Toal, asked about complaints that she’s too “political,” dismissed them by noting how well she has gotten along with the Legislature and governors, even as their politics have changed.

The political temptation Supreme Court justices face has nothing to do with party or ideology. It is the temptation to kowtow to the Legislature, whatever the Legislature’s partisan leanings or political philosophy. It’s to look the other way when the Legislature tramples on our state constitution. It’s to pretend that the laws say what the Legislature meant them to say rather than what they actually say.

That temptation must be greatest for the chief justice, whose dual role as chief executive officer of the entire judicial branch of government brings with it the heavy burden of convincing the Legislature to fund the courts adequately, and keeping lawmakers from exacting retribution, financial or otherwise, when court decisions go a way they don’t like…

It is for this reason that Cindi laments that “Justice Toal, asked about complaints that she’s too ‘political,’ dismissed them by noting how well she has gotten along with the Legislature and governors, even as their politics have changed.”

And of course, in SC, things get very personal, as Cindi suggests in suggesting an apparent reason why Associate Justice Pleicones is making this extraordinary challenge to his old friend:

… one of the themes of criticism that Justice Toal received in anonymous surveys from lawyers stemmed from what Justice Pleicones has called her broken promise to retire when her term ends next year, which would give him an extra year and a half as chief justice….

In the end, the main concern expressed is that from here on, we won’t know what these candidates are saying to individual electors: “For the mind reels at where even the most honest and well-intentioned justices might be tempted to go when they meet behind closed doors with legislators who have votes to provide them — and requests to make of them.”

Cindi doesn’t mean to besmirch either candidate. She notes in particular how Jean Toal’s tenure has been characterized by a “steady move toward judicial independence, toward calling out the Legislature when it needs to be called out.”

But moments such as this create enormous potential for undermining that kind of essential independence. And that is indeed disturbing.

Cindi Scoppe on the now-rare ‘loyal opposition’

Cindi Scoppe had a good column in the paper today — one I might have written myself (ironic, self-mocking smiley face).

She was praising Leona Plaugh for attitudes that used to be fairly common among elected officials, but now are alarmingly rare — and practically nonexistent within the District of Columbia.

An excerpt:

Ms. Plaugh, you might recall, helped lead the opposition to Mayor Steve Benjamin’s rush job on the contract the city signed this summer promising tens of millions of dollars in incentives to Bob Hughes in return for his developing the old State Hospital property on Bull Street in accordance with city desires. She criticized the way the deal was rammed through so quickly that people didn’t know what was in it and she criticized what she did know about its contents. And she was happy to repeat those criticisms when she met with us.

But when my colleague Warren Bolton asked her what happens next, she said, essentially, we make it work.

“Once you vote for something and it’s done, it’s done,” she said. “We all need to get on the bandwagon now and hope it’s the best it can be.”

A few minutes later, when she was talking about her surprise at ending up on the losing end of a 2010 vote to turn control of the Columbia Police Department over to the Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, and we asked why she hadn’t brought that idea back up as the department’s woes have mounted, she recalled all the debate and public hearings that had preceded that vote.

“I don’t think you continually go back and harp on things that this council has already voted on,” she explained, “unless someone on the other side is ready to change their position on it.”

Well.

Then we got to the city’s decision this spring to purchase the Palmetto Compress warehouse over her objections, and the news in that morning’s paper that a local development group had tentatively agreed to buy the property, at a small profit to the city. And there wasn’t even a hint of sour grapes when she told us, “I hope I lose my bet with the mayor and that that will be a roaring success.”

What put an exclamation point on all of this was the timing. Our conversation with Ms. Plaugh took place at the very moment that what passes for grownups in Washington were racing the clock to reach a can-kicking agreement to keep the federal government out of an elective default. An agreement that we weren’t at all certain they’d be able to sell to their colleagues.

Which is just mind-boggling….

As Cindi went on to say, Leona was expressing the attitude of a member of the loyal opposition, “a concept that no longer exists in Washington, outside the occasional Senate gang, and is falling out of favor at the State House, replaced with open disdain for the idea of even talking with people in the other party, much less accepting defeat and moving on.”

And our republic is much, much worse off for that quality being so rare.

The Tea Party as Jacksonians

Yesterday, Kathryn said something about the Tea Party and the deliciously comic line about keeping “your government hands off my Medicare,” and it reminded me of something I’d read earlier in the day:

Jacksonians care as passionately about the Second Amendment as Jeffersonians do about the First. They are suspicious of federal power, skeptical about do-gooding at home and abroad; they oppose federal taxes but favor benefits such as Social Security and Medicare that they regard as earned. Jacksonians are anti-elitist; they believe that the political and moral instincts of ordinary people are usually wiser than those of the experts and that, as Mr. Mead wrote, “while problems are complicated, solutions are simple.”479px-Andrew_Jackson_Daguerrotype-crop

That is why the Jacksonian hero defies the experts and entrenched elites and “dares to say what the people feel” without caring in the least what the liberal media will say about him. (Think Ted Cruz. )

The tea party is Jacksonian America, aroused, angry and above all fearful…

That piece goes a long way toward explaining — at least to me — why I’ve had a problem with the Tea Party since it first emerged. I have always — or ever since I studied American history in college, which is kinda like always — had a problem with the Jacksonian mindset. I’ve always thought of the day he defeated John Quincy Adams as one of the darkest days in the leadership of this country.

I’m not a Jeffersonian, either. I’m more of an admirer of John Quincy’s Dad.

Anyway… I don’t think I had heard the tea partisans referred to as Jacksonians before. But now that I have, it seems a fairly neat, coherent way of describing their political pedigree.

Obamacare, the Constitution and the Bible: A Facebook conversation

Just thought I’d post portions of a conversation I jumped into over on Facebook.

First, Bill Connor posted:

In watching the fight to defund Obamacare, I have this to say. I am a Christian first, as I believe the Bible is the inspired word. Therefore, it is Truth. That said, the Bible is not silent about the role of government and it’s sphere of authority. Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 give the mandate for governmental authority. That mandate is for the “sword” of protection. Protection from external enemies, and protection from lawlessness (law enforcement, Courts) from within the nation. The government is about force in protection. The Church is given the mandate to care for those in need. The Church does not possess the power of the sword, as “Charity” means love. God wants men to give freely and without coercion when it comes to taking care of the less fortunate in society. When Government exceeds its sphere and gets involved with church functions (as in Obamacare, among other things like welfare, etc.) it destroys the idea of Charity. Forcing someone with the sword to give to another is not a Christian ideal. Our founders believed in the Biblical spheres of authority for Church and State and the Constitution makes this law. The Constitution enumerates powers to Government, and those powers do not include Church type functions. Government is to be restrained by the Constitution to the “Sword” functions. Otherwise, Government essentially takes over the Church and all else and attempts to become “god”. That is a reason while I believe the Biblical position to to oppose Obamacare. We care about those in need. However, we are to give to those truly in need through Charity (Love). We did not give the government the power

After a bunch of other people had had a say, I posted:

Bill, in a representative democracy, we vote to elect people to decide what government does. When enough people are elected to decide to undertake something like universal health care, then that’s what we do. If enough people are elected who don’t want to do that, we don’t do that. That’s how the system is supposed to work. It’s really a stretch to make like the government is something outside ourselves coercing us to do something. We, the people, acting through our elected representatives, have decided to do this with the money that we will all pay into it. Does that mean all Americans wanted to do this? No. There probably hasn’t ever been a single action by the government of the United States that all Americans favored. We’re all in the minority on something. But what we do is accept that fact, and work to have our preferred candidates win the next election. In the meantime, we accept the lawful actions of those who have already been elected. We certainly don’t declare lawful actions illegitimate. Nor do we claim, with very thin evidence, that it’s contrary to the Bible. On that last point, I’m not seeing anywhere in the Bible where it says we can’t pool our resources as a people and provide health care for all, and I’d be shocked to find it. Near as I can tell, in terms of saying what the civil government should do, the Bible is pretty silent on something like Obamacare. That leaves the decision up to us and our elected representatives.

Then Bill responded:

Brad, first I appreciate you posting thoughtful note, even though I disagree. Daniel spelled out my opinion exactly. The reason we have the Constitution is to protect certain rights from the whim of the majority. In this case, we had a very quick period of time in which Democrats controlled the House and POTUS. The founders intended to restrain gov’t to its legitimate functions (drawn from the Biblical worldview) and Obamacare exceeds those Constitutional and Biblical limitations.

The another reader (Ltc Robert Clarke) responded:

Brad is right in that the law was passed following our system….but since not a single person in the opposition party supported it, it is bound to face stiff resistance. The people house holds the pursestrings and they should be able to cut the $ off? If you are going to do something this big, best to do it as a bipartisan effort.

And finally, I said this:

Yes, that is best. But when is the last chance we had in this country to do that? Both parties operate on the strategy of getting 50 percent plus one, and then doing whatever they like — which sets off the other party in paroxysms of desperation, because both parties look upon the other, and all its works, as completely lacking in legitimacy. Both parties need to chill, and accept the fact that sometimes people they disagree with are going to win an argument, and just try to win themselves next time around. It’s really getting overexcited to see Obamacare as some sort of Gotterdammerung, the end of all that is good and holy and American and Constitutional. It’s just not. It’s a fairly ugly, pieced-together mish-mash that IS so ugly because there is such opposition to taking the simple approach that Britain and Canada have taken. This is the kind of mess that our hyper-polarized politics produce. It may be too much of a cobbled-together mess to work. But we’ll find out when it’s implemented. It’s going to work, or it’s not going to work. Or it will work in some ways, but not in others. But we won’t know until it’s been in place for awhile.

I didn’t want to get into arguing about whether our Founders intended the Constitution to be “Biblical.” I preferred to stick to this not being the end of the world, or even of the country.

Columbia City Council jealously guards the status quo

In The Federalist No. 59, Alexander Hamilton asserted that “every government ought to contain in itself the means of its own preservation.”

Whether it ought to or not, every system seems to contain in itself, and anxiously embrace, that capability.

That’s certainly the case with the Columbia City Council, which voted last night not to allow the city’s residents to move to a more rational and accountable system of government, that is to say, a strong-mayor system.

At the risk of sounding like a believer in direct democracy, which I am not, allow me to remind one and all that this was not a vote on whether to institute a strong-mayor system, but merely whether to allow the people of the city to choose.

And the council said no. Perceiving a threat to their own power, the council members refused to allow even the possibility.

By doing so, the members in the majority demonstrated that they are not worthy to wield the power that they so jealously guard.

Happy side-effect of SCOTUS ruling on Prop 8 — undermining government by plebiscite

I thought this was an interesting sidelight on the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that advocates of Proposition 8 had no standing to defend the law made by referendum:

SACRAMENTO — Activists on both sides of the bitter fight over same-sex marriage managed to agree on one thing in the wake of Wednesday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision.

The justices, they said, set a worrisome precedent by giving elected officials undue power over ballot initiatives.

The court essentially voided Proposition 8, a measure placed on the state ballot by foes of gay marriage and passed by voters in 2008. The justices said supporters of the initiative had no standing to defend the measure after state leaders — who opposed the law — had refused to do so.

Their reasoning drew a testy dissent from Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a Sacramento native, who wrote that the decision “disrespects and disparages” California’s political process — a staple of which is the ballot initiative.

The court, Kennedy wrote, did “not take into account the fundamental principles or the practical dynamics of the initiative system in California.”…

I read that, and I think, “Good.” Nothing worrisome about it. Anything that undermines California’s chaotic government-by-plebiscite process is a good thing for representative democracy (a.k.a., “The American Way”).

Everybody’s writing about this now. I first saw the subject raised in the WSJ, this morning, and here’s the Washington Times take on it:

DENVER — The Supreme Court’s decision Wednesday on Proposition 8 unlocked the door for same-sex marriage in California but also may have stifled the voices of the state’s voters…

No, it didn’t stifle anything. They still get to elect their representatives, and that’s how things are supposed to work in a republic.

Whether it’s the definition of marriage in California, or the Confederate flag flying on the State House grounds in Columbia, or more routine, everyday laws, they are far better made through the deliberative process of representative democracy, as imperfect as that is.

There is almost no issue that is best defined as an option between “yes” and “no,” which is all you get in a referendum. True, as our politics have become more and more polarized, far too many issues get defined as “yes” or “no” even in our supposedly deliberative bodies. And that’s a tragedy.

But the cure for that is not to dumb things down further by reducing them to “yes” or “no” on a ballot voted on by people who haven’t even had the opportunity to interact with each other through ordered debate.

So anything we can do to move away from that trend, in California and the rest of the country, is a plus.

Another great Brooks column, on the nature of moderation

In response to my praise of David Brooks’ column from earlier in the week, Cindi Scoppe Tweeted this:

.@BradWarthen It’s a very good column, but if it’s the best you’ve seen in years, you obviously missed THIS one http://nyti.ms/QJ87fm 

Well, she knows what I like to read, which shouldn’t be surprising, since I first became her editor in 1987.

The column, from Oct. 25, 2012, was headlined “What Moderation Means.” Excerpts:

First, let me describe what moderation is not. It is not just finding the midpoint between two opposing poles and opportunistically planting yourself there. Only people who know nothing about moderation think it means that.

Moderates start with a political vision, but they get it from history books, not philosophy books. That is, a moderate isn’t ultimately committed to an abstract idea. Instead, she has a deep reverence for the way people live in her country and the animating principle behind that way of life. In America, moderates revere the fact that we are a nation of immigrants dedicated to the American dream — committed to the idea that each person should be able to work hard and rise.

This animating principle doesn’t mean that all Americans think alike. It means that we have a tradition of conflict. Over the centuries, we have engaged in a series of long arguments around how to promote the American dream — arguments that pit equality against achievement, centralization against decentralization, order and community against liberty and individualism.

The moderate doesn’t try to solve those arguments. There are no ultimate solutions….

The moderate creates her policy agenda by looking to her specific circumstances and seeing which things are being driven out of proportion at the current moment. This idea — that you base your agenda on your specific situation — may seem obvious, but immoderate people often know what their solutions are before they define the problems.

For a certain sort of conservative, tax cuts and smaller government are always the answer, no matter what the situation. For a certain sort of liberal, tax increases for the rich and more government programs are always the answer.

The moderate does not believe that there are policies that are permanently right. Situations matter most. Tax cuts might be right one decade but wrong the next. Tighter regulations might be right one decade, but if sclerosis sets in then deregulation might be in order….

Very, very good stuff. I can see why Cindi would like it, and not only because Brooks uses the trick of an inclusive “she” rather than the traditional inclusive “he” to indicate a hypothetical person whose gender doesn’t matter, which is something Cindi does.

More to the point, it should be easy to see why I would like this column as much as the one I praised earlier this week. Both of them speak for me, and the way I see the world. (Which is an argument for why Brooks should have used “he” instead of “she.” Hey, there are bits where he should have just gone ahead and written “Brad.”) There are particularly sharp insights in both columns, expressed in ways that had not yet occurred for me. Some of the highest praise I’ve gotten from readers over the years is when they say, “You write what I think, but don’t know how to say.” Brooks did a better job of explaining some things that I believe than I have been able to do.

I particularly appreciate this statement: “The moderate does not believe that there are policies that are permanently right.” That’s pretty much what I’ve been trying to say in everything I’ve written about the UnParty and the Energy Party and the Grownup Party. (Brooks later says that moderates are misunderstood because they don’t write manifestos. Well, I’ve at least tried to do so….) This is such an important point because there are so many deluded souls out there who fervently believe that there are policies that ARE right in every instance. Promising, for instance, always to vote against tax increases (or, as Brooks said, for higher taxes for the wealthy) is as arbitrary as promising to vote “yes” on all bills that come up on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

I don’t know that I like that column from October better than the Snowden one. But they are both really, really good, and I wish everyone would read them. They say things that are profoundly true, but counterintuitive for too many Americans. These things need to be said as often as possible, and by someone who says them as well as Brooks does.