Monthly Archives: August 2016

A near-fatal case of polarization

The U.S. is suffering from a near-fatal case of polarization,

That’s the opinion of Sam Wang, over at Princeton Election Consortium.

I think he’s overstating the case but I agree its bad. How bad? This bad.

A chart showing which Congressional districts are not contested.
Polarization as lack of choice

One cause of this lack of choice is the use of gerrymandering to create safe seats for a party. If a district is drawn to contain 60% voters from one party and 40% from the other, it is pretty much a given that the 60% party will win all the time. This leads the 40% to stop running candidates it knows will lose, and that disenfranchises the 40% vote share.

The argument that gerrymandering is disenfranchisement has just moved forward in the courts.

A map of Maryland showing gerrymandered districts.
Gerrymandering – bad no matter who does it

A Federal court has ruled that these districts were drawn to favor Democratic candidates, and that should not be allowed. This is a good thing, because we are now closer to the Supreme Court deciding to ban political gerrymandering.

Our democracy is undermined by threats to the one person, one vote principle. Threats such as gerrymandering, voter suppression, and corporate influence are systemic threats and have to be opposed whether they offer a momentary advantage or not.

Single party districts are a symptom of these threats. That they have grown to 15% of all Congressional districts is shocking.

Hidden in the map of CDs is another issue – the use of ‘top 2’ primaries. In this system, the top 2 vote-getters of a single combined primary appear on the final ballot. This can lead to two candidates of the same party, as it has in Washington, California, and Louisiana.

The top 2 system, like open primaries, diminishes the importance of political parties in our electoral system. This is bad for the country. Individuals running without strong party support, but within the party-based ecosystem, are much more open to corporate influence and their policy positions are much harder to ascertain.

Returning to Sam Wang’s point, polarization has paralyzed Congress. This is mostly seen in the House, where the majority party is more concerned with a faction of bomb-throwers than with legislating. The Senate has also slowed to a glacial pace, and refused to advance appointments for votes. Rather than being a successful exercise in power, these tactics have shifted power away from Congress and towards the President.

The short term effect of the coming election will be to further polarize the Republican Party, as moderates are swept out and conservative politicians in safe seats remain in place. In contrast, the Democratic Party will have become more moderate, in order to win those same seats. In 2018, the Dems will have to become more moderate still, as they have to defend these gains and face a tough group of seats up for election in the Senate.

Polarization and one-party politics does not benefit America. It opens the political process further to corruption. We should support all efforts to create a healthy two party system.

Congress and Madam President

President Hillary Clinton’s first two years in office will offer her a limited window of action on the agenda promised in her campaign.

Based on current polls, the Senate has a good probability of flipping into Democratic leadership. Clinton may be able to clear the backlog of Federal judgeships and get one or two Supreme Court justices confirmed. The utter failure of Trump at the polls combined with Mitch McConnell’s position that the next President should decide will be a lash at the backs of the GOP Senate to abandon the obstruction game they have played with both Obama and the previous President Clinton.

The election’s effect on the House is less clear. The combination of self-selection and gerrymandering has been to create safe House seats for the GOP that are occupied by the faction of the House Freedom Caucus. If the election is an embarrassing blowout but not a total landslide, Paul Ryan will remain Speaker. However, his caucus will have shifted further into the pugnacious, bomb-throwing corner as it is most likely the moderate Republicans that will be swept out of office.

The result will be no movement on Clinton’s legislative agenda – college tuition, single payer, none of it. Any action at all on these items will require Democratic control of the House, which in turn will require a yuuuge, very classy win. It just might happen, after all we haven’t had the debates yet. But I’m thinking it will be a bridge too far.

And then the reaction

The 2018 midterms will roll back these gains for the Democrats in both House and Senate. The Senate seats up for election threaten more Democrats than Republicans. What isn’t clear is if Trump will still be dragging down the GOP two years after his loss. My guess is yes, and the Senate will retain a thin Democratic majority throughout President Clinton’s (first) term.

The House may see the effects of a few redrawn districts in 2018, so the classic mid-term reaction against the President’s party may be muted. (Looking at you, North Carolina.) It will also be interesting to see if the GOP establishment will be able to pick off a few more Freedom Caucus members, as they did with Tim Huelskamp this year. In any case, no movement on Clinton’s agenda.

This outlook gives Clinton’s term the same shape as Obama’s first term, with Trump’s campaign playing the role of the Iraq War and the financial crisis in terms of creating a space for Clinton to achieve something. GOP leadership can choose to continue the oh so successful obstructionism, and the result will be the expansion of executive power. I rate bipartisanship possible but unlikely.

PS – I would like to thank Donald J Trump for making it possible to write the phrase “President Hillary Clinton” this early in the process. I am bigly grateful.

Writing the unwritten rules

It isn’t until someone tries to bend or break the rules that most rules get written down. For what everyone else takes for granted, some jerk will say “Nobody told me it wasn’t allowed.” “It isn’t written down anywhere that this is forbidden, so it must be allowed.” And then it gets written down, because somebody had to be a jerk.

Welcome to today’s session of writing things down that should even need to be said! Our topic – Candidates should be nice.

The actual requirements for running for President of the United States are few. Be over 35 and a natural-born citizen. Changing the Constitution to refine these criteria would take a long time and eventually fail. However, we can take advantage of the fact that two major parties control access to the Presidency, and they are private organizations that can make up their own rules. Given the right pressures, political parties can be very responsive.

So here is my list of requirements for anybody running for President with a major party:

  1. Be transparent – Share 10 years of tax returns.
  2. Be inclusive – Spend 100 hours in community service in the last year.
  3. Travel – Meet elected officials from 10 other countries.
  4. Be electable – You must have held elected office before at the state or Federal level, or as the mayor of a large city.
  5. Be knowledgeable – Take a test and allow your score (and right and wrong answers) to be public. There will be essay questions.
    1. World history and current events
    2. Probability and statistics
    3. Macroeconomics and finance
    4. Basic science and current issues
  6. Be clear – Respond to the current party platform and say how you would change it.
    1. Extra credit – Respond to the other party’s platform as well.
  7. Take the truth seriously – donate to the other party for being caught in a lie by a fact-checking group.
  8. Be direct – Agree to at least three debates.
  9. Renounce hatred – Hate speech against any protected class will be disqualifying.

Candidates should agree to these things at the start of their candidacy, in writing, as part of their contract with the party whose nomination they are seeking. Either the party or the candidate may terminate this contract at will, at any time, without recourse. Terminating the contract ends the candidacy.

I realize some of these requirements might be controversial. That’s OK, they are meant to start the discussion, not end it. In particular, the idea that you have to demonstrate electability might strike some people as overly restrictive on ‘outsiders’. Sorry, the last counter-example is Eisenhower, and the last counter-counter-example is Trump. A little road-bump between a military career and political office is not a bad thing.

It used to be that we could expect our parties to put forth the best and the brightest, without worrying the exact details of what ‘best and brightest’ entailed. Apparently that is not possible anymore. So here we are.