The following article by Nancy LeTourneau is cross-posted from The Washington Monthly:
President Obama’s “pen and phone” strategy (which he announced a year ago) has confused a lot of progressives. The title of this article by Markos Moulitsas pretty well sums it up: “Imagine that: Obama decides he’ll fight for people, approvals soar.” He’s right that President Obama’s approval rating has risen over the last couple of months and that the American people seem to like the fact that he is getting things done…despite Congress. Where the confusion shows is in assuming that the President has recently decided to “fight for people.”
Moulitsas includes a list of things Obama has announced recently. But as many of us have been pointing out, a lot of them (normalization with Cuba, executive orders on immigration, etc.) have been in the works for at least 1-2 years. It’s true that free community college is a new proposal. But it was preceded by a proposal for universal pre-K in his 2013 SOTU. The President has consistently said that he would stand by the process of the State Department’s study of the Keystone Pipeline and would veto any effort to preempt it. His working group on police reforms follows a record number of police brutality investigations initiated by the Civil Rights Division of DOJ during his administration.
But Moulitsas isn’t the only one confused by what’s happening. Simon Johnson is one of the people who objected to the nomination of Antonio Weiss as Undersecretary of Domestic Affairs at the Treasury Department. And so its ironic to read him insist that President Obama needs to swiftly nominate someone to that position now that Weiss has removed himself from consideration. But Johnson shows his own confusion with this:
In the continuing absence of an Undersecretary for Domestic Finance, the administration has recently displayed an inconsistent – or perhaps even incoherent – policy stance on financial sector issues. On the one hand, in mid-December, the White House agreed to rollback a significant part of Dodd-Frank – the so-called “swaps push-out,” which was shamefully attached at the behest of Citigroup to a must-pass government spending bill.
On the other hand, the President has recently issued veto threats to protect financial reform.
This post is by TDS Contributor and Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University, Alan Abramowitz. Alan can be followed on Twitter: @AlanIAbramowitz.
Class warfare! That’s what Republicans call it when Democrats talk about the need to address the problem of growing economic inequality in the United States. They claim that it’s wrong to focus attention on the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny minority of corporate executives and captains of finance. And some centrist Democrats, like those associated with the organization Third Way, seem to feel the same way. They’ve been warning that advocating policies aimed at reducing disparities in wealth and income could backfire and cost Democrats support among moderate, swing voters in November.
Notwithstanding such claims, an examination of recent polling data indicates that advocating policies to reduce economic inequality is a winning issue for Democrats in 2014. Americans overwhelmingly believe that wealth and income are too heavily concentrated at the top and that this situation has gotten worse in recent years. Moreover, a majority of Americans want to see the government take steps to reduce the gap in wealth and income such as increasing the minimum wage and raising taxes on upper income households. Finally, and most importantly, this is an issue on which Democrats are more united than Republicans and independent voters tend to side with Democrats. As a result, economic inequality could provide Democratic candidates with a powerful wedge issue in the 2014 midterm election–one that they can use to energize the Democratic base and appeal to swing voters.
Despite attempts by some conservative pundits to minimize its importance, ordinary Americans clearly see growing economic inequality as a major problem. For example, a Gallup Poll conducted in early January of this year found that 67% of Americans were dissatisfied with the way income and wealth are distributed in the U.S. including 39% who were very dissatisfied. Fully 75% of Democrats were dissatisfied but so were 70% of independents and 54% of Republicans.
Americans are not only dissatisfied with the way wealth and income and distributed; they want the government to do something about the situation. Thus, in an April, 2013 Gallup Poll, 59% of respondents indicated that they considered the current distribution of wealth to be unfair and wanted money and wealth to be more evenly distributed in the U. S. A whopping 83% of Democrats along with 60% of independents favored a more even distribution of wealth. Even among Republicans, 28% supported a more even distribution of wealth. Moreover, in the same survey, 52% of Americans favored redistributing wealth by “heavy taxes on the rich.” This was the largest percentage of respondents endorsing redistribution through heavy taxes on the wealthy since Gallup began asking this question in 1998. Fully 75% of Democrats, 50% of independents and 26% of Republicans favored such a policy. There is little doubt that those percentages would have been considerably greater if the question used less loaded language and asked about “higher taxes” on the rich.
Recent polls have shown that Americans overwhelmingly favor policies designed to help those at the bottom of the income ladder such as raising the minimum wage and extending long-term unemployment insurance. Large majorities of Democrats and independents support these policies along with a substantial share of Republicans. Congressional Republicans are clearly on the wrong side of these issues and Democratic candidates, even in red states, have little to lose and much to gain by endorsing such policies. Moreover, the evidence presented here indicates that Democrats would also benefit from directly linking these policies to the broader goal of reducing economic inequality. And if Republicans respond with accusations of class warfare, Democrats should take it as an opportunity to reinforce the public’s perception of the GOP as the party of wealth and privilege. In 2014, a little bit of class warfare may be just what Democrats need.
A TDS Strategy Memo by Ed Kilgore, James Vega and J.P. Green
The Democrats recent victory in the October standoff with the GOP over the shutdown and debt ceiling would have been impossible without the absolutely firm and unbreakable unity that was displayed by every sector of the Democratic coalition. You can choose any adjective you want; “vital,” “indispensable”, “critical,” “essential.” The contribution of Democratic unity to that victory simply cannot be overstated.
The source of this unprecedented unity is not a mystery. It was created by an unprecedented threat – The GOP strategy of hostage-taking and political blackmail not only presented a profound menace to all progressive priorities but also to the basic norms and institutions of American democracy itself.
As the Democratic coalition and community looks to the future, however, there is a quite different challenge that the coalition must also prepare to confront: Democrats will soon have to begin debating important and deeply divisive issues about the Democratic platform and message for 2016 and beyond. These intra-Democratic debates will set the stage for the more public disputes that will emerge during the next presidential primaries.
The critical challenge Democrats face is this: How can Dems energetically debate their differences while at the same time still retaining a sufficient degree of unity to maintain a united front and “hold the line” against the profound Republican threat?
Two Avoidable Obstacles to Democratic Unity
As a starting point for confronting this challenge, it is essential to note that there are two important ways in which Democrats unnecessarily intensify and exacerbate conflict within their coalition.
First, Democrats unnecessarily magnify conflicts within the Democratic coalition because of the particular methods and the forums for debate that they use when they conduct intra-party discussion.
Second, Democrats unnecessarily intensify conflicts within the Democratic coalition because they often fail to distinguish between disagreements over political strategy from those that involve disagreement over basic goals and principles.
Dealing with these two problems will not provide a complete solution to the problem of maintaining Democratic unity but recognizing and confronting them can materially improve the situation. Let us consider the two issues in turn.
To read the memo, click HERE
In the last few days reporters and commentators have been discussing the sudden appearance of a deep split between Karl Rove’s new initiative, The Conservative Victory Project, and supporters of the Tea Party. Many have described it as a battle between “moderates” and “extremists” in the GOP.
To put it simply, this is nonsense. In the following TDS Strategy Memo we three contributing editors of The Democratic Strategist lay out the reasons why.
To read the memo, click HERE.
We believe you will find the memo both useful and important.
Although it is only a few days since the 2012 election ended, the national media is already settling into a familiar political narrative regarding the GOP, a narrative that goes as follows: the Republican Party, having suffered major setbacks at the polls, is now “reassessing” its approach and seeking ways to “moderate” its image and positions.
This is a profoundly comfortable and comforting narrative – one that reflects a kind of ceremonial ritual in American politics. A political party, chastened by defeat, is widely praised by mainstream commentators as it moves back toward the center, re-establishing the basic “balance” and “moderation” of American political life. But in this case there is one overwhelming problem with this narrative: it is profoundly and dangerously wrong.
Beginning last spring, a growing chorus of influential observers and commentators – political moderates and centrists rather than partisan progressive Democrats — began to express a very different view of the GOP – a view that the Republican Party was no longer operating as a traditional American political party. Rather, they argued, it had evolved into an extremist political party of a kind not previously seen in American political life.
During the presidential campaign this perspective was temporarily set aside as journalists and commentators tried to keep up with the almost daily twists and turns of Mitt Romney’s reinventions of himself as a conservative, a moderate and then a conservative once again. But now that the election is over, the underlying issue must be squarely faced.
The first major statement expressing the view that the Republican Party had embraced a dangerous extremism appeared in a very influential Washington Post article, “Let’s just say it, the Republicans are the problem” written by the well known and widely respected congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein. As the article’s key paragraph said:
In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party. The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition… [It has] all but declared war on the government….
The two authors quoted Mike Lofgren, a veteran Republican congressional staffer, who wrote an anguished diatribe about why he was ending his career on the Hill after nearly three decades.
“The Republican Party is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe,”
Mann and Ornstein’s forceful critique provided the impetus for other moderates and centrists to follow their lead and directly address the growing extremism within the GOP. James Fallows, for example, expressed the view as follows in The Atlantic:
Normally I shy away from apocalyptic readings of the American predicament…But when you look at the sequence from Bush v. Gore, through Citizens United…and you combine it with ongoing efforts in Florida and elsewhere to prevent voting from presumably Democratic blocs; and add that to the simply unprecedented abuse of the filibuster in the years since the Democrats won control of the Senate and then took the White House, you have what we’d identify as a kind of long-term coup if we saw it happening anywhere else.
Liberal democracies like ours depend on rules but also on norms — on the assumption that you’ll go so far, but no further, to advance your political ends. The norms imply some loyalty to the system as a whole that outweighs your immediate partisan interest.
American politics has always been open to the full and free expression of even the most extreme ideas, but the profound danger posed by the current extremism of the GOP lies in one deeply disturbing fact: the Republican Party’s extremism goes far beyond support for extreme public policies. Instead, in three key respects, it deliberately seeks to undermine basic norms and institutions of democratic society. The two very different meanings of political extremism
To clearly demonstrate this, however, it is necessary to carefully distinguish between two entirely distinct meanings of the term “political extremism.”
On the one hand, it is possible for a person or political party to hold a wide variety of very “extreme” opinions on issues. These views may be crackpot (e.g. “abolish all courts and judges”) or repugnant (“deny non-insured children all medical care”). But as long as the individual or political party that holds these views conducts itself within the norms and rules of a democratic society, its right to advocate even the most extreme views is protected by those same democratic institutions.
The alternative definition of the term “political extremism” refers to political parties or individuals who do not accept the norms, rules and constraints of democratic society. These individuals or parties embrace a view of “politics as warfare” and of political opponents as literal “enemies” who must be crushed. Extremist political parties based on a “politics as warfare” philosophy emerged on both the political left and right at various times in the 20th century and in many different countries and circumstances.
Despite their ideological diversity, extremist political parties share a large number of common characteristics, one critical trait being a radically different conception of the role and purpose of a political party in a democratic society. In the “politics as warfare” perspective a political party’s objective is defined as the conquest and seizure of power and not sincere collaboration in democratic governance. The party is viewed as a combat organization whose goal is to defeat an enemy, not a representative organization whose job is to faithfully represent the people who voted for it. Political debate and legislative maneuvering are seen not as the means to achieve ultimate compromise, but as forms of combat whose only objective is total victory.
It is this “politics as warfare” view of political life that leads logically and inevitably to the justification of attempts to attack and undermine basic democratic institutions whenever and wherever they present a roadblock to achieving the ultimate goal of complete ideological victory. Three tactics of political extremism
The new moderate and centrist critics of Republican extremism have noted three specific kinds of attacks that the GOP has launched on basic American democratic norms and institutions.
This item by TDS Founding Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic. The “Obama coalition” is real–though it is more narrow than once was thought. Young adults, minorities, women (especially unmarried women), and voters from lower-income households turned out in large numbers. Defying expectations (including mine), the young adult share of the electorate expanded slightly over its showing in 2008.Meanwhile, the president’s share of the white vote was down from 43 to 39 percent. He was supported by 56 percent of moderates, down from 60 percent, and by 45 percent of Independents, down from 52 percent. And while the president’s share of the vote from households making $50 thousand or less held steady at 60 percent, his support among middle income households ($50 to 100 thousand) fell from 49 to 46 percent, and among households making more than $100 thousand, from 49 to 44 percent. America’s demographic shift grinds on inexorably. The white share of the electorate fell from 74 percent in 2008 to 72 percent in 2012. This was at the low end of expectations, but in line with the assumption that guided the Obama campaign. Meanwhile, Latinos maintained, or perhaps even expanded from 9 to 10 percent, their share of the electorate. They supported Obama by an overwhelming 71 to 27 percent. If the national Republican Party does not reconsider its stance on immigration policy, it risks the fate of the California Republican Party after Pete Wilson’s governorship–permanent minority status. Social issues advantage the left, not right. Americans are perfectly willing to be represented by conservatives, but they draw the line at attitudes they consider far outside the mainstream. Romney may well have lost the general election the day he decided to go to Rick Perry’s right on immigration policy. And there’s no way that Republicans should have lost the Senate races in Missouri and Indiana, but their candidates found a way–by wrecking their campaigns on the shoals of abortion politics.
Moreover, the mainstream is shifting. Referenda last night broke the streak of 33 consecutive defeats for same-sex marriage in statewide votes. Obama’s support for marriage equality appears to have cost him little, even among the working class voters who were disposed to support him on economic grounds. Transactional politics works. Ohio workers in automobile-related companies were grateful to the president. So were Latinos (for the executive order protecting younger immigrants), gays and lesbians (for the president and vice-president’s support for same-sex marriage), and younger women (for reproductive health services and pay equity). In the fall of 2011, the Obama campaign decided that running for reelection on the basis of general achievements–the stimulus, the Affordable Care Act, financial reform, etc.–would not suffice to re-mobilize a dispirited Democratic base, and they decided to mount a much more targeted effort. While we’ll never know for sure, the results seem to vindicate their approach. Mea culpa. I did not believe that Obama could be reelected on this basis. I did not believe that a campaign that seemed likely to reduce his share of whites, middle class voters, moderates, and independents–and did so–could obtain a majority. I was wrong.
I remain to be convinced, however, that Obama’s tactics provided the strongest foundation for the policies he seeks to enact. Divided government can yield only two results–compromise or gridlock. The tone and temper of this campaign have not advanced the prospects of agreement across party lines. So gridlock continues to loom–unless the Republicans have been chastened by defeat, as the president hopes. But Speaker Boehner sounds anything but chastened, House Republicans are homogeneously conservative, and it will be much harder for Obama to divide House Republicans than it was for Ronald Reagan to snatch away moderate and conservative House Democrats thirty years ago.
So it’s still an open question whether Obama can transform his new electoral majority into a governing majority, as Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s. Obama’s campaign was undoubtedly a brilliant tactical success against considerable odds and historians may judge that there was no alternative. But transforming it into a strategic success will be much harder.
…The current voting rights issue is even more serious [than Watergate]: it’s a coordinated attempt by a political party to fix the result of a presidential election by restricting the opportunities of members of the opposition party’s constituency–most notably blacks–to exercise a Constitutional right. This is the worst thing that has happened to our democratic election system since the late nineteenth century, when legislatures in southern states systematically negated the voting rights blacks had won in the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
But while the possibility of Romney and other Republican candidates actually winning elections by disenfranchising Democratic voters is the most grotesque threat on the horizon it is also important for Democrats to be aware of a second major danger that springs directly from the first: even if Obama not only wins the election but does so by a sufficient margin to avoid a contested result, the claim that massive voter fraud occurred can and will be used to de-legitimize his victory to millions of Americans and to provide a bogus justification for continued GOP intransigence and political sabotage during his second term.
Unfortunately, both the Republican Party and movement conservatives have the strongest possible incentives to follow this path if Obama is indeed re-elected.
For the GOP, an Obama victory will generate tremendous pressure on the party to moderate their extremist strategy of complete noncooperation and refusal to compromise with the new administration. The claim that Obama was only elected because of massive voting fraud will provide an easy and hypocritically “altruistic” rationalization for them to continue employing their extremist political strategy.
For movement conservatives, an Obama victory will generate tremendous demoralization among “the troops” and even the most ferocious denunciations of Romney’s ideological weakness and personal ineptitude will not be sufficient to restore their former fighting spirit. The claim that Obama was elected by massive voting fraud, on the other hand, will not only provide an explanation for the conservative defeat but also serve as a rallying cry for continued mobilization and a justification for continued belief that conservatives are still the “real” majority.
It is, of course, completely inevitable that the conservative grass-roots voter fraud groups that have been organized to monitor polling places on Election Day will loudly allege “massive voter fraud” and a stolen election regardless of what actually occurs on November 6th. But for this accusation to gain any significant credibility beyond the circle of already convinced conservatives, an absolutely key requirement will be some kind of dramatic visual evidence of problems or disruptions occurring at polling places. After all, by themselves on-camera interviews with the leaders of the voter fraud monitoring groups — interviews in which these grass-roots “voter vigilantes” will breathlessly allege the existence of busloads of swarthy immigrants and shiftless minorities having been herded from precinct to precinct to vote multiple times — will not be sufficient to convince anyone outside the circle of true believers.
The impact of such charges will be vastly amplified and reinforced, however, if video images of even the smallest and most unrepresentative handful of disruptions at polling places can be obtained and then presented as evidence that something suspicious was actually going on. It is only necessary to remember how Fox News’ relentless repetition of the footage of two motley and rather forlorn “Black Panthers” standing for several minutes in front of a single African-American precinct in 2008 elevated the notion of “thuggish intimidation” of McCain voters into a major national story and an unquestioned truth for millions of Fox viewers.
Most disturbingly, even incidents that are directly and entirely provoked by the actions of the new voter vigilantes themselves will actually serve to bolster and reinforce the bogus accusations of voter fraud. The simple fact is that, from a distance, images of angry people shouting at each other do not reveal what their dispute is about or which side is actually at fault. Any dramatic video images of angry confrontations or disruptions on Election Day, regardless of their actual cause, will powerfully reinforce the false perception that “something fishy” was really going on.
Unfortunately the danger that disruptions will be provoked by the voter vigilantes themselves is extremely high.
In the first place, the grass-roots voter vigilantes are already deeply and passionately convinced that massive voting theft is an established fact. An article in The Atlantic described one grass roots leader in the following way:
Speaking at one Texas Tea Party gathering, Alan Vera, the Army ranger turned volunteer-trainer, cautioned that “evil” forces were about to launch “the greatest attack ever on election integrity,” and implored the crowd to prepare for a “ground war”: “In 2012, we need a patriot army to stand shoulder to shoulder on the wall of freedom and shout defiantly to those dark powers and principalities, ‘If you want to steal this election, you have to get past us. We will not yield another inch to your demonic deception … If you won’t enforce our laws, we’ll do it ourselves, so help us God.’ ” Shaking his fist in the air, he cried, “Patriots, let’s roll!” The crowd cheered wildly.
(Other activists, of course, are far more cynical. A board member of the Racine county Wisconsin GOP who supervised the county’s major voter fraud group in 2010 noted that some precincts might be targeted “just because it’s a heavily skewed Democratic ward.”)
But, for the most part, the conservative ground troops will be utterly committed true believers who are completely convinced that massive voting fraud is occurring and that they are heroic patriots defending the nation from a sinister coup-de-tat.
This problem is then compounded by the fact that the tactics of the voter vigilantes are inherently provocative and extremely likely to provoke conflict. Download the pdf and/or:
This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is crossposted from The New Republic.
Political polarization has become an obstacle to economic growth because it is increasing uncertainty, and delaying new private sector investment and hiring. That’s the view emerging from the business community and–increasingly–from the economics profession.
Earlier this month, in a front-page New York Timesstory, a number of CEOs gave voice to their fears about the fiscal cliff and the broader policy impasse in Congress. According to Vincent Reinhart, chief U.S. economist at Morgan Stanley, more than 40 percent of companies in their monthly survey cited the fiscal cliff as a major reason for pulling about on hiring and investment, and he expects that percentage to rise. These concerns go well beyond the defense sector, whose stake in a speedy resolution of the controversy is direct and clear. Alexander Cutler, the CEO of a large Ohio-based maker of industrial equipment, put it this way: “We’re in economic purgatory. In the nondefense, nongovernment sectors, that’s where the caution is creeping in. We’re seeing it when we talk to dealers, distributors, and users.”
A few days later, the Wall Street Journal ran an article by Dennis Berman, a reporter who sometimes sits in on the conference calls companies use to preview earnings results. According to Berman, “You can hear the bafflement, the anger, on the just completed run of company earnings calls. Typically scripted and banal, the calls have become an unexpected public platform for chastising Democrats and Republicans alike for what’s become of our way of governing … Most spread the blame on the broader culture of Washington itself. Its dysfunction, they say, is having real-world effects.”
Skeptics might discount all of this as anecdotal. It turns out, however, that a growing academic literature is working to measure policy-related economic uncertainty and to quantify its effects on economic activity. A recent paper, “Measuring Economic Policy Uncertainty” by Stanford economists Scott Baker and Nicholas and Steven Davis of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, constructs a sophisticated index of economic policy uncertainty and finds that it has risen substantially during the past five years. The authors are able to disentangle the portion of overall economic uncertainty that is driven by public policy from the portion that isn’t, finding the former as a share of overall uncertainty has risen substantially as well, now amounting to about 65 percent of total uncertainty. Using standard regression techniques, they estimate that the increase in policy-related economic uncertainty is associated with peak effects declines of 4.0 percent in industrial production, 3.2 percent in GDP, 16 percent in private investment, and 2.3 million jobs.
As my faithful readers never tire of pointing out, I am not now, nor have I ever been, an economist. Those who are and want to judge for themselves can find the paper at www.policyuncertainty.com. But everyone should keep in mind that the thrust of the research I’ve just summarized is hardly outside the mainstream. Indeed, nearly two decades ago, a young economist named Ben Bernanke published a paper arguing that when it is expensive to cancel investment projects or to hire and then fire workers, then high levels of uncertainty increase the incentive of firms to delay making new investments and hiring additional workers. Unlike many other economic discoveries, this one makes intuitive sense as well.
Although the U.S. economy and political system are inextricably intertwined, the gulf between economic and political leaders has rarely if ever been wider. CEOs simply can’t understand why politicians are behaving in such a myopic and destructive manner, multiplying uncertainties and depressing economic activity. At the same time, the business community has been much less willing than it once was to weigh in on the side of the long-term policies it favors.
This year, Romney is getting massive corporate support, especially from the financial community, for his election bid. But I can see no evidence that business leaders have had any influence on Romney’s fiscal policy, the details of which just don’t add up. Romney has yet to explain how his tax reform can approach revenue neutrality, and taken literally, his overall fiscal program is a formula for even larger deficits. Most business leaders I know support a grand bargain along the lines of the Simpson-Bowles or Domenici-Rivlin proposals, but few of those plans have gone much beyond kibitzing from the sidelines. (There have been some signs in the past month that this may be changing, but it’s too early to tell whether the shift is real.)
Objectively, the long-term interests of the business community are more closely aligned with those of business-friendly wing of the Democrats than they are with a Tea Party-dominated Republican Party. Business leaders may hope that Romney would govern as the CEO he used to be rather than the populist he now pretends to be. If so, they have not reckoned sufficiently with the forces in his party who will block any serious move toward economic sanity. If CEOs really wants the kinds of long-term economic policies that will give them the ability to plan and the confidence to invest, they will have to get off the sidelines and enter the fray.
This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is crossposted from The New Republic.
Republicans should not be surprised if voter laws becomes a major topic of debate this election season–they will be the ones responsible for making it so. Over the past two years, the GOP has made a concerted attempt in a number of states to tighten voter registration procedures, cut back on alternatives such as early voting, and–most controversially–require would-be voters to show state-issued photo IDs as proof of identity. Because there’s such little evidence that these changes are needed to eliminate widespread voter fraud, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that many Republican legislators want to discourage voting among groups–especially minorities and the poor–that cast their ballots mainly for Democrats.
But it’s worth remarking that beneath these crass political motives are some deeper moral issues. Proponents and opponents of these changes agree on one thing: Voting will be harder, and turnout will be lower. But is that necessarily a bad thing? Proponents think not. Speaking for many others, Florida State Senator Mike Bennett said, “I don’t have a problem making [voting] harder. I want people in Florida to want to vote as bad as that person in Africa who walks 200 miles across the desert. This should be something you do with a passion.”
There’s something to this, of course. It is morally gratifying to witness the joy of peoples who are able to vote for their own representatives after decades of authoritarian governments–even more so when they have won this ability through sacrifice and struggle that have cost some their lives. In the United States, the movement that enabled long-disenfranchised African Americans to cast their ballots represented a moral high point in American history. African Americans who participated or lived through that struggle have never taken voting for granted, and they have worked hard to pass on that sentiment to their children. At the same time, they insist–undeniably–that their struggle should not have been necessary: The struggle was simply the means to attain a civic status that every citizen should enjoy.
That is why African Americans have a problem with making voting harder, as should we all. It’s common knowledge that poorer and less educated citizens have a harder time navigating a system that is already the most complex least voter-friendly of all the Western democracies (which helps explain why our turnout is so low). Facially neutral registration and voting requirements will have asymmetrical effects, a fact that only the willfully blind can deny.
But this argument raises another question: Are these effects necessarily a bad thing, morally speaking? Some arch-conservatives have gone so far as to argue that encouraging the poor to vote actually undermines just and limited government, because the poor will use their political power to take economic resources from those who are not poor. One such conservative, Matthew Vadum, put it this way:
Why are left-wing activist groups so keen on registering the poor to vote? Because they know that the poor can be counted on to vote themselves more benefits by electing redistributionist politicians . . . . Registering them to vote is like handing out burglary tools to criminals.
This is a classic argument against democracy that traces all the way back to the Greeks. It disappeared from serious American political discourse when states eliminated their property qualifications for voting nearly two centuries ago. In practice, America’s poor have opted for the American Dream of equal opportunity over aggressively redistributionist politics–witness their rejection of stringent estate taxes, a stance most liberals regard as patently self-defeating and view with incomprehension.
The deepest argument revolves around the moral status of voting. Last year, Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Zellers said, “I think [voting is] a privilege, it’s not a right. Everybody doesn’t get it because if you go to jail or if you commit some heinous crime your [voting] rights are taken away. This is a privilege.”
This claim rests on an obvious confusion. Anybody who believes in the Declaration of Independence will affirm that liberty is among our inalienable rights. Nonetheless, certain sorts of crimes are thought to warrant incarceration, which is a deprivation of liberty. Does that transform liberty from a right into a privilege? Of course not.
The real logic is different. Our society presumes (as some do not) that all human beings are equal in their possession of both human and civil rights and that the burden of proof in restricting those rights must be set very high. Some people argue that no reason is compelling enough to override the right to life, for example, which is why the death penalty will always be a contentious issue.
Hardly anyone makes that argument about liberty, which is why life sentence without parole is widely regarded as a legitimate substitute for the death penalty. Without the ability to deprive some law-breaking citizens of their liberty, our entire justice system would come crashing down. But no one thinks that turns liberty into a privilege.
Voting is much the same. All citizens are presumed to be equal in their right to vote. Yes, most felons do forfeit their right to vote, at least temporarily. (We argue about whether permanent forfeiture is legitimate, even after felons have “paid their debt to society.”) But if we take the equal right to vote seriously, we must not pass laws that implicitly treat voting as a privilege some are fitter than others to enjoy. To confuse that right with a privilege is to change the understanding of American citizenship, and not for the better.
This item by TDS Contributor Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Executive Director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, is the latest in a series of memos she has written for TDS on LGBT political strategy.
As a gay Christian minister leading a grassroots LGBT rights organization in North Carolina, I have daily occasion to consider the underdog’s position.
We are now almost three months out from the passage of Amendment One, a far-reaching state constitutional amendment that in its vague language appears to ban marriage equality, civil unions and domestic partnerships. Ultimately the courts will need to weigh in on its actual meaning.
Although a sucker punch, Amendment One’s passage was neither surprising nor particularly revealing. This was always the most likely outcome based on months of polling that showed us down by a wide margin. But precedent also suggested this outcome: we have now lost in all 32 states that have had marriage equality measures on the ballot since 1998. The passage of Amendment One reinforced what has been brutally evident for years: the current playbook – which involves rebuilding campaign infrastructure anew in each state, allocating insufficient resources to and relying on outdated technologies in field operations, and, in messaging, tip-toeing around the elephant in the room of displaying actual LGBT lives – isn’t working. This fall, Maine, Maryland, Washington and Minnesota will vote on ballot measures about marriage equality. Each has a chance to create a new playbook.
We live in interesting and often contradictory times. Public support for marriage equality continues to grow, helped recently by President Obama’s endorsement. But significant numbers of Americans remain conflicted about the issue. Two federal cases – a Prop 8 challenge and a DOMA challenge – could be headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, yet LGBT people continue to live as second-class citizens in the majority of American states, including every Southern state.
Stating these facts does not in any way diminish the hope I also feel about what’s possible – full federal equality – in the next ten years. The strategies we use in the years to come will be critical not just because they’ll determine the pace and nature of our progress but also because they’ll shape how our country moves through the admittedly choppy straits of change. Ultimately, achieving full legal equality will involve a combination of strategies – from federal litigation to grassroots organizing to lobbying – to get there. But it also requires a clear-eyed assessment of what is and is not working about current efforts.
I believe that current efforts leave untapped our greatest strength: LGBT people and allies in states where discriminatory laws prevail (which is to say most states) who are ready to take public action calling for full federal equality. To tap into this strength, we must first embrace our status as underdogs and the strategic implications of this status. By necessity, the underdog’s approach to any goal favors efficient, creative, and bold tactics.
To succeed, the underdog must be efficient. Conventional wisdom in the LGBT movement holds that we should devote efforts to a state-by-state strategy that involves striving for incremental progress at the state level or trying to hold the line. This approach has served its purpose by breaking through the glass ceiling in a handful of states; the impact of those successes has been critical. But concurrently, our opponents have won in 32 states. Thus, even when we do win in a critical mass of states, the other side will still have a majority.
It’s time to move beyond a state-by-state strategy that has us working on fifty fronts simultaneously (in states where marriage and employment rights have been won, muscular state-level lobbying efforts continue). This strategy makes sense where legislatures and courts are friendly to the LGBT cause, but it is inefficient as a primary strategy in states where the opposite is true. Across the South, the majority of LGBT resources are directed to state-level lobbying efforts, even as legislatures across our region endorse increasingly regressive measures on civil rights.
Moving forward, our efforts across the South should focus increasingly on the federal level, the most efficient pathway to equality for LGBT people in all fifty states. The federal level is efficient because federal legislation and federal court rulings apply nationally rather than winning one state at a time. Frankly, we do not have the time to wait for a slow, incremental march to partial equality on a state-by-state basis. In some Southern states it would take decades to achieve full LGBT quality. The human costs of these discriminatory laws are profound.
Additionally, federal actors are responsive to national polling, which shows us within striking distance of clear majority support for equality measures around a range of issues. Recent national polling, for example, shows 73 percent support for a federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act and 50 percent support for gay marriage. In contrast, 34 percent of people in North Carolina supported legalizing same-sex marriage in early 2012.
I love my state, but, in the short-term, I prefer our odds federally. I believe that intensifying federal advocacy efforts in Southern states can accelerate the pace of federal progress. This is not a widely-held view, however, because the South is often dismissed as a politically unwinnable afterthought in the LGBT movement.
Waiting for Joe Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress to begin this week, I observed at New York that Republicans were struggling to define him consistently, which felt like a familiar problem for them:
When Bill Clinton was at the pre-Lewinsky peak of his powers, he drove Republicans nuts. They alternated between accusing him of “stealing our issues” with his triangulating pitches on welfare reform and crime and the size of government, and of being “liberal, liberal, liberal!” — a sort of boomer love child of George McGovern and Janis Joplin in a deceptive deep-fried southern packaging. Eventually the opportunity to depict him as a lying sexual predator solved the conservative dilemma, though you could argue he never stopped throwing them off-balance.
Republicans are similarly having problems getting a clear focus on Joe Biden, as the Los Angeles Times’ Noah Bierman observes:
“Alex Conant, a Republican consultant who has advised Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, [says] that his party’s two main messages about Biden are at odds with each other, blunting their impact. ‘The thing you hear Republicans say most is that he’s too old for the job, which isn’t consistent with saying he’s doing too much,’ Conant said. ‘You can’t effectively argue that he’s incompetent and that he’s too effective.'”
This dual framing of Biden was evident during the 2020 campaign, when Trump called him “Sleepy Joe” and with his usual lack of subtlety suggested his opponent was senile, even as he assailed Biden’s party of radical socialist aims. The 45th president and his surrogates squared the circle by treating Biden as the half-there puppet of the real powers, particularly the “communist” Kamala Harris.
But now, 100 days into the Biden-Harris administration, even though the new president has kept an unusually low profile, there are no signs of Harris or anyone else manipulating him. Indeed, so far his White House has been remarkably free of the factionalism that often undermines clear presidential leadership. With Clinton as president you had a White House staff famously divided (ironically, given the later reputations of the First Lady and the veep) into progressive “Rodhams” and centrist “Gores” who jockeyed for position and placed their varying stamps on administration policies. George W. Bush’s presidency was also marked by competing power centers (e.g., his terrifying vice-president and the “Boy Genius” Karl Rove); to a lesser extent, so was Obama’s. As for Donald Trump, hardly a week passed without someone — particularly his rotating cast of chiefs-of-staff — being described by “insiders” as the real power behind the throne or perhaps as the wild man’s lion-tamer.
Trump, of course, created some of the same problems for Democrats that Clinton — and now Biden — posed for Republicans. Was he the “toddler president” who ran a hollowed-out administration with no real core of convictions or goals? Or was he a putative Il Duce craftily planning an authoritarian takeover of the country? Up until the day he left office there was evidence for both descriptions. Indeed, the coda of his presidency, the January 6 Capitol riot, was variously regarded as a fascist coup attempt and a clown show.
Trump’s successor will have an opportunity in his first address to a joint session of Congress to add to the impression that he is quietly but firmly in charge of the executive branch, and has imposed order on his fractious party as he unveils yet another massive proposal. Kamala Harris will be sitting (and often standing and applauding) behind him, likely looking more like an adoring protégée than any sort of puppet-master. But if he stumbles at all, or looks tired, or says things that supposedly centrist Democrats like him don’t believe, the knees of many elephants will jerk and out will come the mockery of the old man who is a reassuring front for the Marxists actually running the country.
Such confusion if it continues will be of great service to Biden, much like the current Republican tendency to focus on irrelevant culture-war themes while a mostly united Democratic Party enacts legislative initiatives of a magnitude we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan’s first year in office. For all their political gifts, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — who, lest we forget, both had a much more firmly Democratic Senate and House the first two years of their presidencies — couldn’t come close to the mastery of Congress Biden has exhibited up until now. As Republicans watch Biden’s speech, they should soberly realize that before long it may not matter that much if they bust up the Democratic trifecta in 2022. The damage to GOP policies and priorities wrought by “Uncle Joe” and his “senile socialist regime” could be too large to reverse by then. While Republicans fret about Trump and rage about “cancel culture,” Biden is eating their lunch.