You Hope the Uninformed and Misinformed Even Out at the Polls

Shall we consider why American politics is so screwed up? One reason is a 232-year old Constitution that favors minority rule and is hard to amend. Another is that one of our major political parties is now as radical and authoritarian as certain small right-wing parties in other countries. There’s also the quality of the electorate. Many people don’t bother voting, can’t vote or face too many obstacles, such as waiting in line for hours instead of minutes. Of the people who do vote, many don’t have a clue, either because they’re uninformed or misinformed. David Roberts (of the Volts newsletter) expands on the uninformed issue (the misinformed issue is better understood):

One of the most pernicious aspects of political commentary is how much it relies on polls and surveys that give people a list of options and ask which they care about or believe. It gives the impression that the mass of voters are out there knowing things and worrying over “issues.”

In fact, anyone who looks into it closely finds basically the same thing: voters don’t know anything. They have all kinds of wacky and weird beliefs. They don’t necessarily care about — can’t even necessarily identify — “issues” as political types think about them.

So, so, so much of political commentary is DC/NY City political obsessives retconning voter behavior to render it a rational, or at least legible, response to actual facts and circumstances. It’s like a fun pattern-finding game they all play together. [Note: “retconning” was new to me. It refers to “retroactive continuity”, the practice of going back and changing something in a story, like the way Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes and then brought him back to life, saying the death had been staged all along.]

One example I think about a lot: Obama’s election/presidency basically signaled to a bunch of non-college-educated white folks that Democrats are the party of racial equality. (They did not, as it turns out, view that as a good thing.) Now, to a political type the notion that Democrats are on the side of racial equality is so obvious, so foundational to modern politics, that it’s genuinely difficult to imagine not knowing it. Civil Rights Act? Voting Rights Act? WTF? It’s been decades of this stuff. And I will give you $1,000 if you can find me a political commentator who said, when Obama was elected, “hey, a bunch of people didn’t know where the parties stood on racial equality & this is going to tip them off.” It’s hard to put yourself in the headspace of not knowing things.

Basically every open-ended survey or questionnaire finds this — just depthless ignorance about the very basics of US government and public life — but pundits strategically forget it when they want to ascribe some elaborate belief or intention to a voting result.

Or when they want to play populist and scold people who point out this baseline ignorance. “How dare you look down on hardworking heartland folks etc.”

Basically most punditry strikes me as equivalent to some ancient shaman squinting at chicken bones and finding patterns/truths.

Unquote.

Roberts then suggests reading an article by the MSNBC journalist Chris Hayes:

As several people have noted, this classic . . .  is one of the few deep dives into voter ignorance and its implications. Foundational reading for anyone interested in politics: “Decision Makers”.

I plan to read it.

Something Not To Be Thankful For

Brian Klaas, an associate professor of global politics at University College London, asks an important question:

Is there any way to reverse the Republican Party’s lurch toward violent, authoritarian lunacy?

For the past decade, I’ve studied the rise of authoritarianism and the breakdown of democracy around the world. Traveling from Madagascar to Thailand and Belarus to Zambia, I’ve tried to understand how despotic politicians and authoritarian political parties systematically destroy democracy. And based on that research, I have some bad news: The party of Reagan and Romney is long dead. The party of T____ is here to stay.

What has happened in the United States over the past five years is, in many ways, a classic of the autocratic genre. A populist leader rose to power, attacked the presspoliticized rule of lawthreatened to jail his opponentsdemonized minoritiespraised dictators abroadspread conspiracy theories and lies, and then sought to seize power despite losing an election.

When such despotic figures emerge in democracies, their political party has two options: push back against the would-be despot while reasserting democratic principles, or remake the party in his image. Republicans have quite clearly chosen the latter path.

The big question now is: Can this be reversed? Can Republicans go back to being a broadly pro-democracy party that operates within democratic constraints and accepts election defeats without inventing false claims?

There are a few ways political parties that drift toward authoritarianism can be brought back from the brink. Sadly, none of them can save the modern GOP.

Authoritarian parties can be reformed when they suffer a crushing electoral defeat. If Republicans were wiped out at the polls in 2022, there would be a decent chance the GOP would move back to a more normal center-right party. That outcome is unlikely, however, precisely because the party’s anti-democratic tactics are insulating Republican politicians from voter backlash. Already, Republican lawmakers have drawn gerrymandered maps that rig future elections in their favor. In Wisconsin, for example — a state Joe Biden narrowly won — the new maps will likely give Republicans 75 percent of the state’s seats in the House of Representatives. Even if Democrats get more votes, Republicans would win more seats.

Republicans could conceivably abandon such practices if their leaders were being pressed by their own supporters to be more democratic. Instead, we’re seeing the opposite: GOP voters want more authoritarianism. The Republican political base doesn’t just believe T____’s lies about the 2020 election. These voters are now using those lies as a litmus test — to separate the true believers from alleged “RINOs” who believe in democracy more than they believe in D____ T____. Candidates are responding by stating that they believe T____’s lies as a point of pride in their campaign messaging. This trend is creating a ratcheting effect, motivating Republican candidates to establish increasingly extreme authoritarian credentials to stand out.

The Republican Party could also be driven away from authoritarianism by a charismatic rival to T____ who believes in democracy. If a Mitt Romney-style figure were currently electrifying the Republican base, it would be a lot easier to imagine a more democratic future for the GOP.

Instead, Romney is a Republican pariah who is viewed more positively by Democrats than Republicans. He narrowly avoided being attacked by a violent mob of pro-T____ Republicans on Jan. 6, which is as good a metaphor as you can get for the fate that awaits Republican leaders who try to stem their party’s authoritarian tide. And when a Republican tries to investigate the Jan. 6 rioters to hold them accountable, he or she becomes a pariah, too. (Just ask Rep. Liz Cheney.) Meanwhile, the rising stars in the party are extremist zealots who are sympathetic to the insurrectionists such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Meaningful media backlash isn’t realistic, either. Although plenty of journalists and pundits have finally started to describe Republican authoritarianism without mincing words, T____’s efforts to discredit mainstream media outlets have paid partisan dividends. Many T____ supporters only tune into partisan media outlets that amplify what they already believe. Here, too, the trend is also heading in the wrong direction. Fox News, the center of that right-wing media universe, is facing pressure from the more extreme talking heads at outlets such as One America News and Newsmax.

What’s left, then, is some distant hope that a profound national crisis could jolt Republicans away from their embrace of authoritarian politics. Just as the tragedy of September 11 brought Democrats and Republicans together, perhaps a major national shock could cause Republicans to rally back toward democracy. But we’ve already had two major crises — January 6 and a once-in-a-century pandemic — and they’ve made the GOP more extreme, not less. If a violent takeover of the U.S. Capitol aimed at overturning an election and more than 770,000 dead Americans in the pandemic aren’t enough of a jolt, what would it take?

The conclusion is depressing, but we must face reality: The battle for the Republican Party is over. The T____ian authoritarians have won — and they’re not going to be defeated by pro-democracy Republicans anytime soon.

Unquote.

With no looming crisis or common enemy on the horizon, there are probably only two ways to cripple today’s Republican Party.

(1) Every Democrat in Congress recognizes the problem and decides to pass the Freedom To Vote Act, a bill that would protect voting rights and increase the number of voters.

(2) The “low information” voters who can’t decide between the two parties show up at the polls and help vote authoritarian Republicans out of office.

Convincing a couple politicians who call themselves Democrats to do their job sounds easier than getting millions of the ignorant or dim-witted to change their ways. You can send Senator Sinema a message even if you don’t live in Arizona. Likewise, you can send Senator Manchin a message even if you don’t live in West Virginia.

Midnight Is Approaching: We Can Have Either the Filibuster or Democracy

Last month, Republican senators refused to allow a vote on the Freedom To Vote Act. Because of the Senate’s filibuster rule, the fifty Democratic senators needed ten of their Republican colleagues to join them in allowing the bill to come up for a vote. But not one Republican voted with the Democrats (the Democratic majority leader changed his vote to No so the bill can be given another chance). Here’s why Republicans oppose the bill. The Freedom To Vote Act would:

  • Expand voter registration (e.g., automatic and same-day registration) and voting access (e.g., vote-by-mail and early voting) and limit removing voters from voter rolls.
  • Establish Election Day as a federal holiday.
  • Allow ex-felons to vote. 
  • Make it illegal to interfere with another person’s ability to register and vote.
  • Require states to follow new rules for post-election audits and congressional redistricting.
  • Expand the prohibition on campaign spending by foreign nationals and require additional disclosure of campaign-related fundraising and spending.

No wonder every single Republican senator refused to allow the bill to be considered. They’re opposed to the idea of majority rule.

In support of the bill’s passage, however, more than 150 academics, experts in subjects like political science, history and public policy, have released this statement:

We, the undersigned, are scholars of democracy writing in support of the Freedom to Vote Act, the most important piece of legislation to defend and strengthen American democracy since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This bill would protect our elections from interference, partisan gerrymandering, dark money, and voter suppression. We urge all members of Congress to pass the bill, if necessary by suspending the Senate filibuster rule and using a simple majority vote.

This is no ordinary moment in the course of our democracy. It is a moment of great peril and risk.

Though disputes over the legitimacy of America’s elections have been growing for two decades, they have taken a catastrophic turn since the 2020 election. The “Big Lie” of a stolen election is now widely accepted among Republican voters, and support for it has become a litmus test for Republicans running for public office. Republican state legislatures in Georgia, Florida, Texas, and across the country have enacted partisan laws intended to make it harder for Democrats to win elections. Most alarmingly, these laws have forged legal pathways for partisan politicians to overturn state election results if they are dissatisfied with the outcome.

The partisan politicization of what has long been trustworthy, non-partisan administration of elections represents a clear and present threat to the future of electoral democracy in the United States. The history of other crisis-ridden democracies tells us this threat cannot be wished away. It must be promptly and forthrightly confronted. Failure to pass the Freedom to Vote Act would heighten post-election disputes, weaken government legitimacy, and damage America’s international reputation as a beacon of democracy in the world.

Each branch of government has a role to play in protecting free and fair elections, but Congress’s responsibility looms largest. After the Civil War, when the path of American democracy was highly uncertain, Congress built the foundations of our modern democracy by passing two constitutional amendments and five pieces of legislation to protect the right of African Americans to vote. All were passed on party-line votes. But in 1890, the Senate failed to break a filibuster on a sixth piece of legislation: the Federal Elections Bill (also known as the Lodge Bill), which would have pushed back against voting rights violations in the South.

The upshot of that critical vote was that southern states, in the absence of any federal supervision, were allowed to pursue the wholesale disenfranchisement of African Americans for the next 75 years. By a tiny margin in one branch of Congress, American democracy took a giant leap backwards.

Protecting future elections from subversion, providing equal opportunities for all citizens to participate, drawing fair district boundaries, strengthening transparency over money in politics, and facilitating impartial electoral administration should not be partisan matters. Unfortunately, however, across state legislatures, Republicans have challenged the legitimacy of the 2020 U.S. presidential election and altered election rules on party-line votes, with a clear intent to entrench minority rule.

If Congress fails to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, American democracy will be at critical risk. Not only could this failure undermine the minimum condition for electoral democracy—free and fair elections—but it would in turn likely result in an extended period of minority rule, which a majority of the country would reject as undemocratic and illegitimate. This would have grave consequences not only for our democracy, but for political order, economic prosperity, and the national security of the United States as well.

Defenders of democracy in America still have a slim window of opportunity to act. But time is ticking away, and midnight is approaching. To lose our democracy but preserve the filibuster in its current form—in which a minority can block popular legislation without even having to hold the floor—would be a short-sighted mistake of historic proportions. The remarkable history of the American system of government is replete with critical, generational moments in which liberal democracy itself was under threat, and Congress asserted its central leadership role in proving that a system of free and fair elections can work.

We urge the Senate to suspend the filibuster rule for this measure and pass the Freedom to Vote Act. This would uphold the Senate’s noblest tradition of preserving and strengthening American democracy.

Unquote.

At least two Democratic senators, Sinema of Arizona and Manchin of West Virginia, have opposed reforming the filibuster in order to protect voting rights. Tom Tomorrow of This Modern World nicely captures the “logic” of their position:

TMW2021-11-24color

If you’d like to share your views on this matter (in a nice way) with Senator Sinema, you can contact her even if you don’t live in Arizona. Likewise, you can contact Senator Manchin even if you don’t live in West Virginia. Maybe they care enough about democracy to see reason.

PS: The Rittenhouse Case

Another observer, Kurt Eichenwald, makes a good point:

. . . the biggest villains here are the Kenosha police, who refused to protect protesters by treating right-wing, gun-toting civilians as adjuncts to law enforcement. THAT is where politics & white supremacy should be most condemned – it’s institutional and allowed the streets to be filled with thugs like Rittenhouse, whose mere presence created the potential for this. But the presence of these dangerous people was not a crime.

These Brief Words About the Rittenhouse Case Sound Right to Me

Seventeen-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse traveled to Kenosha, Wisconsin, last year with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, saying he wanted to protect private property. This was during unrest following an earlier incident in which a policeman repeatedly shot an unarmed black man. Confronted and pursued by demonstrators, Rittenhouse killed two and wounded another. He claimed his actions were self-defense.

Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo responded to Rittenhouse being found not guilty:

A few thoughts on this verdict. It’s probably obvious I think it was a bad verdict. But I think we have to look more broadly at the result. People disagree. Juries make bad decisions. There’s nothing new about that. But what we have in the country right now are three factors.

One is highly permissive self-defense laws. In some cases, the statutes are okay but they’re interpreted too heavily or entirely in the defendant’s subjective perception of danger. In other “stand your ground”-type cases, they’re just bad laws. But the upshot is similar.

You also have a situation where any yahoo is now allowed to bring a high capacity firearm into an already tense or potentially violent situation. Usually they come with a chip on their shoulder or a political agenda. Then if they get scared they can start shooting.

It didn’t get a lot of attention but the judge essentially threw out the law that bars minors from open carrying in Wisconsin. So literally a kid can now show up with an AR to “help” and that’s okay.

Finally we live today in a very polarized, very divided society in which some people’s lives and inner experiences count a lot more than other people’s. You can say that that really means white people’s count more. And that’s generally right. But it’s not only that.

As long as murder is okay as long as you were feeling the right thing at the moment you killed the other person, that makes something as foundational as killing wildly subjective and makes the decisions jurors make too dependent on their own private definitions of good guys and bad guys.

None of these factors are new exactly. But together they create something genuinely new in this political moment. Add in the increasingly public acceptability of political violence on the American Right and you’ve got a powder keg confluence of factors that will make resorts to violence and general murder safaris not only more common, but also acceptable under the law.

Unquote.

I’ll add two things. The first is that the extreme polarization in our society is the result of the right-wing’s descent into fantasy and authoritarianism. Countries with conservative political parties that are actually conservative, not insanely radical and not gun-crazy like the Republican Party, aren’t as polarized.

The second is that the judge dismissed the gun charge because the weapon Rittenhouse had wasn’t illegal, according to Wisconsin’s law. For whatever reason, “the law allows minors to possess shotguns and rifles as long as they’re not short-barreled. . . When [the prosecutor] acknowledged that Rittenhouse’s rifle’s barrel was longer than 16 inches, the minimum barrel length allowed under state law, [the judge] dismissed the charge (Associated Press). In other words, according to the letter of the law, it’s fine in Wisconsin for a minor to parade around with a dangerous weapon if its barrel is longer than 16 inches. The prosecutor could have appealed the judge’s decision, since it contradicted the spirit of the law, but didn’t bother. It wasn’t the prosecutor’s only mistake.