American Politics of the Past and Present

Paul Krugman, economist and NY Times columnist, is a very bright person. Here, he accurately sums up where American politics used to be and where, heaven help us, it is now.

It’s 2023. What will the new year bring? The answer, of course, is that we don’t know. There are a fair number of what Donald Rumsfeld (remember him?) called “known unknowns” — for example, nobody really knows how hard it will be to reduce inflation or whether the U.S. economy will experience a recession. There are also unknown unknowns: Will we see another shock like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

But I think I can make one safe prediction about the U.S. political scene: We’re going to spend much of 2023 feeling nostalgic for the good old days of greed and cynicism.

As late as 2015, …, we had a fairly good idea about how American politics worked. It wasn’t pretty, but it seemed comprehensible.

On one side we had the Democrats, who were and still are basically what people in other advanced nations call social democrats (which isn’t at all the same as what most people call socialism). That is, they favor a fairly strong social safety net, supported by relatively high taxes on the affluent. They’ve moved somewhat to the left over the years, mainly because the gradual exit of the few remaining conservative Democrats has made the party’s social-democratic orientation more consistent. But by international standards, Democrats are, at most, vaguely center left.

On the other side we had the Republicans, whose overriding goal was to keep taxes low and social programs small. Many advocates of that agenda did so in the sincere belief that it would be best for everyone — that high taxes reduce incentives to create jobs and raise productivity, as do excessively generous benefits. But the core of the G.O.P.’s financial support (not to mention that of the penumbra of think tanks, foundations and lobbying groups that promoted its ideology) came from billionaires who wanted to preserve and increase their wealth.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Democrats were pure idealists. Special-interest money flowed to both parties. But of the two, Republicans were much more obviously the party of making the rich richer.

The problem for Republicans was that their economic agenda was inherently unpopular. Voters consistently tell pollsters that corporations and the rich pay too little in taxes; policies that help the poor and the middle class have broad public support. How, then, could the G.O.P. win elections?

The answer, most famously described in Thomas Frank’s 2004 book “What’s the Matter With Kansas?,” was to win over white working-class voters by appealing to them on cultural issues. His book came in for considerable criticism from political scientists, in part because he underplayed the importance of white racial antagonism, but the general picture still seems right.

As Frank described it, however, the culture war was basically phony — a cynical ploy to win elections, ignored once the votes were counted. “The leaders of the backlash may talk Christ,” he wrote, “but they walk corporate. … Abortion is never halted. Affirmative action is never abolished. The culture industry is never forced to clean up its act.”

These days, that sounds quaint — even a bit like a golden era — as many American women lose their reproductive rights, as schools are pressured to stop teaching students about slavery and racism, as even powerful corporations come under fire for being excessively woke. The culture war is no longer just posturing by politicians mainly interested in cutting taxes on the rich; many elected Republicans are now genuine fanatics.

As I said, one can almost feel nostalgic for the good old days of greed and cynicism.

Oddly, the culture war turned real at a time when Americans are more socially liberal than ever. George W. Bush won the 2004 election partly thanks to a backlash against gay marriage. (True to form, he followed up his victory by proclaiming that he had a mandate to … privatize Social Security.) But these days, Americans accept the idea of same-sex marriages almost three to one.

And the disconnect between a socially illiberal [Republican Party] and an increasingly tolerant public is surely one reason the widely predicted red wave in the midterms fell so far short of expectations.

Yet despite underperforming in what should, given precedents, have been a very good year for the out-party, Republicans will narrowly control the House. And this means that the inmates will be running half the asylum.

True, not all members of the incoming House Republican caucus are fanatical conspiracy theorists. But those who aren’t are clearly terrified by and submissive to those who are. Kevin McCarthy may scrape together the votes to become speaker, but even if he does, actual power will obviously rest in the hands of people like Marjorie Taylor Greene.

What I don’t understand is how the U.S. government is going to function. President Barack Obama faced an extremist, radicalized G.O.P. House, but even the Tea Partiers had concrete policy demands that could, to some extent, be appeased. How do you deal with people who believe, more or less, that the 2020 election was stolen by a vast conspiracy of pedophiles?

I don’t know the answer, but prospects don’t look good.

A Relatively Sane Election, But Likely Insanity Ahead

It looks like women and voters under 30 saved the day. Pro-insurrection Republicans mostly lost. Forced birth was rejected in several states. Democrats have added two governors so far.

Depending on results still to come in Arizona, Nevada and Georgia, the Democrats will end up with 49 senators (giving control to the Republicans), 50 (keeping the relative control Democrats have now) or 51 (meaning Manchin and Sinema won’t be as important, since they’ll have to vote together in order to make trouble).

As predicted, Republicans will apparently take control of the House of Representatives. But it appears they’ll have a tiny majority. That means trouble ahead. Author Brynn Tannehill explains:

[The Republicans are] probably going to end up with between 218 and 220 seats in the House. This means only a 1, 3, or 5-seat advantage… Whoever the Speaker of the House is, they’re going to have a pretty unmanageable situation. The right wing of House [Republicans] is detached from reality, intransigent, incapable of compromise, will make insane demands, and is large enough to derail EVERYTHING.

There will be crazies in key positions on all the plum committees. Wall to wall nutso hearings on Fauci putting 5G in vaccines and other nonsense, actual legislation won’t happen. Which is a problem. Because you still have to pass budgets and raise the debt ceiling.

So, whoever is Speaker is going to face a dilemma: (a) Cut deals with Democrats to get critical bills through or (b) go with the crazy and accept government shut downs [and] debt default….

Given how the crazies ran off [the previous Republican Speakers of the House] John Boehner and Paul Ryan, … the Speaker will more or less hand over the agenda to [the crazies] because it’s the path of least resistance….

But wait, it gets even more unstable… On average, in any given Congress about 3 members die. Others retire for whatever reason (such as getting caught with a sex worker), or go to the pokey for white collar crime. All of which result in special elections. Given the age, hypocrisy, and lack of real morals on the part of Republican politicians, they’re disproportionately likely to be the ones who leave office and cause a special election. Which means control of the House may be up for a vote several times in the next two years….

A [Republican] House is going to propose a lot of legislation that’s going nowhere [and make sure Democratic legislation goes nowhere too]. 

[We can expect] the next two years to be unpredictable, chaotic, radical and illogical as the House goes far to the right in order to keep the crazies placated, and the government gets shut down for long periods.

While they still control the agenda in Congress, Democrats need to do something about the debt limit. Republicans are already threatening to vote against honoring the government’s debts as a bargaining chip. A federal government default would lead to a global financial panic. It would be a good idea, therefore, to contact your representatives in the House and Senate, as well as President Biden, and demand that they address this problem before it’s too late, meaning before the end of the year. (Last year’s explanations still apply since nothing has been done since then.)

As we wait for further developments, it’s worth noting that pre-election coverage in this country is practically worthless. From Judd Legum of Popular Info:

Political media is broken Major outlets spent weeks PREDICTING there would be a “red wave” and EXPLAINING its causes It was all based on polls, which are unreliable This kind of coverage is not just pointless, it’s harmful.

“Democrats’ Feared Red October Has Arrived” — @nytimes, 10/19/22

“Democrats, on Defense in Blue States, Brace for a Red Wave in the House” — @nytimes, 10/25/22

Red tsunami watch” — @axios, 10/24/22

“Why the midterms are going to be great for Dxxxx Txxxx” — @CNN, 10/26/22

All of these forecasts, and many similar predictions published in other outlets, turned out to be wrong. But even if media predictions were correct, they represent a style of political reporting that is dysfunctional. Prediction-based coverage comes at a high cost because it crowds out the coverage that voters actually need. To make an informed decision, voters need to know the practical impact of voting for each candidate.

While outlets ran story after story about the [Republican] red wave, [their] pledge to use the threat of a global economic collapse to try to force benefit cuts to Social Security and Medicare went virtually ignored.

The political media has substituted polling analysis, which is something only people managing campaigns really need, for substantive analysis of the positions of the candidates, something that voters need.

You and I don’t control what the “experts” say about upcoming elections, but we can try to ignore the polls and speculation next time.

A Lingering Question from the 2020 Election

Why didn’t Democrats do better in House and Senate races last year, given that Biden got seven million more votes than the other guy.

First, the House of Representatives. There were roughly 156 million votes for either Biden or his Republican opponent. Biden’s share of that 156 million was 52.3%. Meanwhile, Democrats got 51.5% of all the votes cast in House races and, as a result, 51.5% of seats in the House. If they had gotten Biden’s percentage instead of 51.5%, they would have done better, but not much better. Instead of 224 seats out of 435, they might have gotten 227 or 228. That wouldn’t have been a big difference. The House vote pretty accurately tracked the presidential vote.

One reason the Democrats’ House vote fell slightly short might be that five million voters didn’t bother voting for a House candidate — maybe more of those lazy, uninformed or cynical voters were Democrats. Another reason, no doubt more likely, may be that Biden’s opponent was especially unpopular. More than a few people who usually vote Republican couldn’t bring themselves to vote for their party’s presidential candidate, even though they were willing to vote for his supporters in Congress.

The Senate was a different story. Because senators serve for six years, only one-third of Senate seats are contested in any given election. In 2020, thirty-four states had Senate elections. For no reason except that it was their turn, twenty-two of those thirty-four states had Republican senators. Only twelve had Democrats.

Since states generally elect their senators with large majorities — incumbent senators often win 60% or more of the vote — you’d expect Republican presidential candidates to do extraordinarily well in states with Republican senators. That’s exactly what happened in this election. The Republican presidential candidate got 57% of the vote in states that elected Republican senators, compared to 47% in the country as a whole.

Even so, Democrats ended up winning Senate seats in fourteen of the thirty-four states, adding two states to their total. Precisely those fourteen states of the thirty-four also went for Biden.

So the Democratic presidential candidate won 52.3% of the votes cast for either him or the Republican [not for a 3rd party candidate]; Democrats running for House seats did only slightly worse; and Democrats running for the Senate picked up a few seats, despite the fact that two-thirds of the states with Senate elections usually vote for Republicans.

If there’s an anomaly here, it’s that almost half of the electorate voted for a terrible president and disgusting human being, while also voting for congressional candidates who’d support him every step of the way.

One other statistic is worth noting. Biden got 49.6% of the vote in the thirty-four states with Senate elections, even though two-thirds of those states preferred his opponent. How did he get almost half the votes in thirty-four states if two-thirds of those states voted for the other guy? The reason is that Democratic states have larger populations.

Among the thirty-four states, the average Democratic state had 3.6 million voters. The average Republican state had only 1.8 million. Because each states has two senators without respect to population, the 40 million voters in the twenty-two Republican states are represented by forty-four senators. The 43 million voters in the twelve Democratic states only have twenty-four senators.

The men who wrote the Constitution made the US Senate a bastion of minority rule. The Senate filibuster adds insult to injury by requiring sixty votes out of one-hundred to get much done. There is no justification for giving a minority of senators so much power in a legislative body that already gives disproportionate power to America’s smallest states.

This Is One of Our Two Major Political Parties

Marjorie Taylor Greene is 46 and serving her first term in the House of Representatives. She won the Republican primary for Georgia’s 14th Congressional District last year with 57% of the vote. She easily won the general election. The 14th District occupies the northwest corner of Georgia and is heavily Republican. This is what her official website says about her:

Marjorie graduated from the University of Georgia and received her Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. Marjorie has been actively involved in her community, in her children’s schools, and been active on a national level as National Director of Family America Project.

Marjorie has a strong Christian faith and believes we must continue to protect our great freedoms and work to keep America a great country for our generations to come.

Marjorie and her husband, Perry, have been married 23 years. They have three children . . .. Marjorie believes the best part of her life is being a mother and spending time with her family.

Media Matters for America presents more information about Rep. Greene:

In another newly uncovered 2018 Facebook post, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) endorsed a conspiracy theory that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was videotaped murdering a child during a satanic ritual and then ordered a hit on a police officer to cover it up. She also liked a meme claiming that some of her now-Democratic congressional colleagues have used the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for human trafficking, pedophilia, and organ harvesting. 

. . .  She has received heavy criticism for her recently uncovered endorsements of the conspiracy theories that the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, were staged false flags. Greene is also a QAnon and 9/11 conspiracy theorist who has promoted anti-Muslim attacks and a conspiracy theory that Jewish people are trying to take over Europe through immigration. 

Greene is also a backer of [a] violent and absurd . . .  conspiracy theory, which is linked to QAnon and Pizzagate and essentially claims that Hillary Clinton and former aide Huma Abedin sexually assaulted a child, [mutilated her] and then drank her blood as part of a satanic ritual . . .  Greene endorsed the conspiracy theory on Facebook in May 2018. . . .

Greene also liked a meme that was posted to her Facebook page in June 2018 claiming that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Clinton, former President Barack “Obama and their Democrat friends … can’t have Trump repeal DACA as it would show DACA was used by them … for human trafficking pedophilia in high places and organ harvesting.”

CNN offers more:

Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene repeatedly indicated support for executing prominent Democratic politicians in 2018 and 2019 before being elected to Congress, a [CNN] review of hundreds of posts and comments from Greene’s Facebook page shows. . .

In one post, from January 2019, Greene liked a comment that said “a bullet to the head would be quicker” to remove House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. In other posts, Greene liked comments about executing FBI agents who, in her eyes, were part of the “deep state” working against Trump.

I add this piece of news without further comment:

Her Republican colleagues have selected Rep. Greene to serve on the House Education and Labor Committee.

There Is No “Congress”

It is true that the Constitution of the United States of America created a legislature. Its principal function is to make laws. It comprises the legislative branch of the federal government, the other two branches being the executive and the judicial.

The authors of the Constitution called this legislative branch “Congress”. They also divided this “Congress” into two parts.

Article I, Section 1:

All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.

When a law or a change to a law is proposed, the Senate and the House of Representatives must both endorse the proposal in order for it to become official, i.e. “the law of the land”. (The Executive branch, embodied by a “President”, also gets to participate in the process. Sometimes the Judicial branch does too.)

So far, so good.

The Constitution nowhere mentions political parties, but it only took a few years for a “two-party system” to develop.

The Founding Fathers did not originally intend for American politics to be partisan. . . .  Alexander Hamilton and James Madison . . . wrote specifically about the dangers of domestic political factions. In addition, the first president, George Washington, was not a member of any political party . . . Furthermore, he hoped that political parties would not be formed, fearing conflict and stagnation . . .

Nevertheless, the beginnings of the American two-party system merged from his immediate circle of advisers. Hamilton and Madison . . .  ended up being the core leaders in this emerging party system. It was the split camps of Federalists, given rise with Hamilton as a leader, and Democratic-Republicans, with Madison and Thomas Jefferson at the helm . . . that created the environment in which partisanship, once distasteful, came to being [Wikipedia].

How does the two-party system affect Congress? If the majority in both the Senate and the House belong to the same party, it doesn’t make that much difference. If, say, the Racoon Party has the majority in both houses, there is general agreement on which laws to adopt (since senators serve for six years and representatives only serve for two, the members of the two houses sometimes have different priorities even when they belong to the same party).

But what if the Racoons are the majority in the Senate and the Otters are the majority in the House? Or the other way around? It is more difficult for the two majorities to agree on what the country’s laws should be. Sometimes it’s almost impossible.

Since 1857, when the Republicans joined the Democrats as one of America’s two major parties, there have been eighty-two sessions of Congress. By my count, the same party has controlled both houses of Congress sixty-six times, leaving sixteen sessions in which Congress has been divided. We are living through one of those sixteen sessions now, since the Democrats control the House and the Republicans control the Senate.

As we would expect, with two different parties in charge, things are not going well.

For example, the Democrat-led House agreed on legislation in May, almost three months ago, in order to deal with the suffering and disruption caused by Covid-19. Among other things, House Bill 6800 (unfortunately called “The Heroes Act”) would extend the $600 weekly increase in unemployment insurance, make another round of direct payments (up to $6,000 for a family), provide $25 billion to the U.S. Postal Service and increase aid to state and local governments.

The Republican-led Senate has not taken a vote on the House’s bill. Nor has the Senate proposed its own version of legislation to address the same issues (which would then be subject to negotiation with the House). The result is that the $600 increase in unemployment insurance agreed to earlier this year has lapsed. A moratorium on housing evictions is also ending.

So the country is in quite a pickle.

Now here’s what motivated me to express myself today. It’s a headline in The Washington Post.

Congress deeply unpopular again as gridlock on coronavirus relief has real-life consequences

Here’s one from USA Today.

Congress leaves town without a coronavirus stimulus deal, allowing $600 unemployment benefit to end

Here’s a classic example of the problem from an experienced New York Times reporter:

A conservative Republican House member profanely accosts a Democratic congresswoman as she strides up the Capitol steps to do her job during multiple national calamities.

With expanded jobless benefits supporting tens of millions of fearful Americans about to expire and a pandemic raging, Senate Republicans and the [Republican] White House cannot agree among themselves about how to respond, let alone begin to bargain with Democrats.

In a private party session, arch-conservative Republicans ambush their top female leader and demand her ouster over political and policy differences.

And that’s just the past few days.

By nearly any measure, Congress is a toxic mess . . .

Jonathan Chait is a columnist for New York Magazine. He referred to the problem twice in the past month:

If I could change one thing about political coverage, it would be the practice of attributing actions by one party to “Congress” [June 27].

The single worst practice in political journalism is attributing decisions by one party to “Congress” [July 26].

I’d make it “actions or inaction by one party”, but he made a very good point.

My suggestion is that when two different parties are in charge of Congress, people who write about politics for a living should make an effort to specify which party in which house is doing (or not doing) something. That would help readers understand where the dysfunction usually lies (hint: it’s not the Democratic side).

Since my suggesting this will have no effect, I’ll alternatively suggest that when we readers see references to Congress in times like this, we keep in mind that Congress has two parts and that one of those parts (same hint) is totally screwed up.

In fact, in times like this, “Congress” doesn’t really exist.