The Politics of Cruelty

Before you stop reading, no, this isn’t going to be a post bashing the Republican party as cruel for shutting down the government and effectively denying services that are utilized by those Americans least likely to help themselves. It’s about how the Democrats, given this situation, might use cruelty to their advantage. 

We seem pretty far away from a solution to the government shutdown because it is in neither party’s political interest to re-open the government. Republicans can claim that they are standing up against Obamacare specifically and government spending generally; there’s a certain logic to shutting down a government that you have proclaimed is wasteful and inefficient at best and the enemy of the public at worst. Democrats have no reason to be seen as giving in to Republican demands, especially when the media has framed this as a petty squabble led by a small faction of extremists willing to hold the country hostage because they don’t like a law that was passed by Congress, upheld by the Supreme court and “ratified” by a presidential re-election. Media narratives tend to be sticky, and I doubt that, even if the Republicans gave up on all their demands and it was the Democrats who then refused to open the government until the Republicans backed down on the debt ceiling, the public would change its mind and begin blaming the Democrats. So why wouldn’t the Democrats press this advantage?

One reason might be that public opinion polls are running squarely against the entire Congress, not just the Republicans, and that America’s chief Democrat, President Obama, isn’t all that popular either. But I think a more significant reason is that keeping the government closed hurts poor people, and Democrats, at least liberal ones, are psychologically averse to inflicting pain, especially on those who can least afford to bear it. Republicans, on the other hand are more inclined to let the poor suffer, if not actively make things worse for them. (I get this summary of Democratic and Republican attitudes towards inflicting pain from Tom Edsall’s book, The Age of Austerity which neatly compiles a lot of data from opinion polling and other research in chapter 2). So it will be difficult for Democrats to allow this shutdown to continue any longer than it has to, especially if it means no headstart classes for poor children. 

But maybe they should. After all, many of the recipients of government aid live in very red Republican-held districts. It’s possible that these people might be turned against the right wing if they can be led to believe that the Republicans are responsible for their lost benefits. It shouldn’t be difficult to maintain this belief, even if it isn’t true, since it makes more sense to believe that conservatives would cut benefits than liberals. After all, liberals don’t have the heart, right? And it’s not likely that Democrats are going to lose any votes for cutting benefits — especially, say Social Security disability benefits — in these states, or even in blue states, because what are appalled liberals going to do, vote for Republicans? 

When you take into account the persistence of media narratives and perceptions about the characteristics of Republicans and Democrats and add in the idea that people will be swayed by their own economic interests, it seems plausible that a prolonged shutdown that cuts deep into the economic lives of red-state republicans might possibly turn out better for democrats. In other words, they might have to be cruel to be kind. 

Shutdown: Day 1

I realize that the title of this post suggests that I will be keeping a running log of what the NYTimes is calling John Boehner’s Shutdown, but that’s misleading. There is just too much coverage in the mainstream media of the government shutdown that began today, and frankly, most of what I read is overwhelmingly depressing.

So today I’m going to post a couple of links to articles that you should think about.

The first one is an Op-Ed piece that looks at the American economic picture. A number of you have commented on the article about the shrinking middle class and the consensus seems to be that the phenomenon is the result of market forces and that there isn’t much the government can do. This piece (along with this one) may make you think a little differently.

The second article you should look at is this piece in Salon (sorry about the noisy ads  I don’t usually read Salon, but it showed up in my Twitter feed, so there you are). Since you are all getting more and more familiar with the constitution, I’d be interested to hear what you think of his arguments about how the constitution is to blame for the shutdown. Do you think that James Madison would agree?

A little history on government shutdowns

In the next week or so we should be hearing a lot about government shutdowns, so this article provides a little history on what happened the last time the U.S. government was shut down over a budget battle.

In particular I’d ask you to look at the way people play fast and lose with historical interpretation and with polling data. Remember this latter point in the spring when we look more closely at polling.

And now on to the even more frightening issue: the debt ceiling debate. We’ll be talking about this a lot in class in the next week or so, but for now I’d like you to read these two (admittedly liberal) takes on the debates in Congress.

First from the New York Times:

And this from the Washington Post (only read the first section):

And you MUST read this, from the National Review online, which is supposedly the House Republicans’ initial gambit in the debt ceiling negotiations. Business Insider has a succinct take on this position calling it at total fantasy. I have to admit, when I read it, I thought that this was a joke, but apparently it’ s not.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, especially on the debt ceiling issue. Also check out some of the new links to articles I’ve posted in the “articles and links” page.

America’s shrinking middle class

Considering that I graduated from high school in 1988, the figures described in this article are startling:

I wonder three things about this phenomenon:

1. To what degree are they the result of politics/government policy?

2. Assuming that you see this as a problem, is there a political solution to it?

3. If this phenomenon was NOT caused by politics, what caused it, and does this cause admit of ANY solution?

Guns, Marijuana, and the limits of federalism

Although it’s not front page news, lately there have been a number of decisions made by states that bring up questions of federalism.

In this article from Slate, Emily Bazelon, tries to explain how state marijuana legalization laws and state laws attempting to nullify federal gun regulations differ from each other.

Read the article and let us know what you think. You should consider how federalism is at issue, what you think about the way the states are acting in each case, and how your personal political orientation (whether you identify as liberal or conservative) influences your opinions on the issues.

Read this article now, and remember it later

For my money, Thomas Edsall writes the best pieces on politics and government for teachers and students.  This isn’t one of his better ones —  the connection between the political science analysis and Malcolm Gladwell seems forced —  but it still contains ideas that we will be talking about all year long. Read it, and if you want to respond, try to be specific and limit yourself to one or two of its points.

(if the link above doesn’t work …)

Is presidential power really on the wane?

In today’s Sunday Review, Sam Tanenhaus, in a piece called the Hands-Tied Presidency, writes that President Obama’s inability to push forward his preferred policy in Syria is an example of a structural and institutional limitation on the power of the presidency. He further claims that writers have been remarking on the weakness of the presidency in relation to the legislature for many years, citing as an example Woodrow Wilson, who before he became president was an historian and political scientist. This seem a rather odd piece of evidence to support a questionable claim, first because Wilson was writing about government 100 years ago, and especially when only a few weeks ago commentators on both the left and the right were decrying the long reach of the executive on that was revealed — perhaps not the appropriate term — along with the details of the NSA intercept programs.

So here are some things to consider:

1. Is it really true that Congress is stronger or more effective, in its ability to make policy, than the President?

2. If this is the case, isn’t that what the Constitution dictates?

3. Which branch, the executive or legislative, should take the lead in formulating policy? Does it matter if the policy in question is domestic or foreign?

4. Why might it be better to have one branch be preeminent in policy making? Which branch Do you think it should be, and why?