No polarizing Democratic President–yet

What is ‘polarization’ in the context of the American political parties and presidential form of government? Was WJ Cllinton an example of a polarizing president? Republican partisans would say so. Is GW Bush such an example? Almost anyone (except perhaps the most core Republican partisans) certainly would say so.

I would argue that there has not, in fact, been a polarizing Democratic president–yet. Maybe 2008 will bring one. But we have not seen one yet, certainly not Clinton.

Just because there was intense opposition to Clinton by the core of the Republican Party did not imply that Clinton’s presidency, per se, was polarizing. Clinton always–at least after the 1994 midterm election and especially after impeachment and continuing through to the end of his term–had strong approval from “independent” voters as well as stronger (or less abysmal!) approval from opposite-party partisans than has been the case for Bush at any time other than in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. These indicators are better proxies for the degree of “polarization” than simply the intensity of opposition by the core of the opposing party (or of support by the president’s own party).

Back in October (yes, this planting was germinating for a long time, but it is now spring, after all), I ran across the following item by Harry Levins in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 1 (found via Lexis-Nexis, so no link). Mr Levins is reviewing Running Alone by James MacGregor Burns (Basic Books, 272 pages, $26).

Older Americans tend to remember John F. Kennedy in nostalgic terms. But political scientist James MacGregor Burns remembers him as the president who pointed his office in a bad direction — away from political parties and toward political expediency.

In “Running Alone,” he weighs the consequences of this loosening of political ties. Mostly, they’ve been bad, especially for the Democrats, says Burns, who acknowledges upfront that he’s an FDR Democrat and proud of it.

His political identification sets him aside from presidential centrists, such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Burns says that like Kennedy, Carter and Clinton used the party when it suited them and otherwise ignored the party, for example, when Clinton pushed NAFTA through Congress, despite the opposition of the FDR Democrats in labor unions.

Those who favor this approach (the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, for example) see it as pragmatic and realistic. Those who oppose it (the various hard liberal blocs in the party) see it as opportunistic and cynical.

Burns says Richard M. Nixon’s Southern Strategy let Ronald Reagan pull the Republican Party to the right, where it remains. In Burns’ view, popular support for this truly conservative GOP is deep but narrow. He thinks a Democratic presidential candidate who could unite his party top to bottom across the remaining segments of society could make up in breadth what this approach lacks in depth.

The more centrist, flexible and non-polarizing presidency on the model of Carter–and, yes, WJ Clinton–is more consonant with what we should expect in a presidential democracy, where parties are organized first and foremost to capture a separately elected, fixed-term presidency. The more explicitly partisan, even ideological, approach represented by GW Bush really is inconsistent with the very structure of presidentialism and the incentives it (normally) gives for presidents to construct a different constituency from that of the legislative majorities.

The question heading into 2008 will be whether the next Democratic candidate builds a more specifically partisan constituency. That is, have the dynamics of the party system and the processes for building a presidential constituency shifted fundamentally, or will the Bush presidency turn out to have been an aberration?

If a partisan, polarizing Democratic candidate were to win, he or she likely would have –given the outcome of the 2006 midterms–the necessary congressional majorities for a more partisan governing strategy to be viable. (It would be highly unlikely that Republicans would take back either chamber of Congress, but especially the House, in 2008 at the same time that a Democrat won the presidency.) I do not think a polarizing, highly partisan Democratic presidency on the GWB Republican model is likely, because the Democratic constituency is not as narrow and cohesive as the Republicans’. (Democratic gains in 2006 in some unlikely places would seem to confirm that.) But such a polarizing Democratic administration has become more likely than it formerly was.

This post was originally inspired not only by the review quoted above, but by a post at PoliBlog. There, Steven Taylor and I debated about whether GW Bush and WJ Clinton both are examples of highly polarizing partisan Presidents. I suggested, no, for the reasons indicated above. I do not have the link to the referenced PoliBlog post. Maybe Steven will stop by and find it for us.

Jefferson, Ellison, and the Koran

Various revisions and extensions on 9 January.

This is not exactly a hot news item, but then this was never intended to be a news blog, anyway. Over the last couple of weeks there has been much talk about new Congressman Keith Ellison, an American-born convert to Islam, and some rather depressing “controversy” from elements on the right about his desire to take his oath of office on the holy book of his faith, the Koran. Then there was a further buzz over his decision to use a Koran that had been owned by Thomas Jefferson. (Boker tov, Boulder, posted a nice photo.) Brilliant political counterpunch!, many seemed to say.

What I find ironic in all of this is the context of interactions Jefferson had with Islam. He, like Madison and other founders, read widely and had a vast library of legal, religious, and political volumes from around the world. Thus the very fact that he owned a Koran is not itself as remarkable as the public reaction to Ellison’s decision to use said book implies. However, Jefferson, in his professional-political life, did have encounters with a portion of the Muslim world, and there are reasons to doubt these encounters would be of the sort that Ellison intended to bring back to the surface. (Perhaps luckily for him, the US press rarely misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity to give historical context.)

So, I began perusing the volumes I have that contain selections of Jefferson’s writings. I knew, somewhat vaguely, that he had been President during the Barbary Wars, but that is about it. I am certainly not going to try to summarize the Barbary Wars here. I trust the interested reader can go off searching for information.

The quick summary of what I found in a sample of Jefferson’s writings is that he was quite the hardliner during his stint as Ambassador to France when it came to debates about how the USA should deal with the “pirates” of the Barbary states (Algeria, Tripoli, and other North African polities under the loose rule of the Ottoman Empire). And, of course, as President, Jefferson ordered US forces onto the shores of Tripoli in a non-declared war (police action, limited incursion, or whatever)–America’s first overseas military adventure and first engagement with Islamic fighters.

As I alluded to above, the Barbary connection has scarcely been noted. A Google News search I did today on the word string, Jefferson Koran Barbary, returned six items, none from exactly “mainstream” sources. (By contrast, I got “about 382” by searching on Jefferson Koran.) Google’s Blog Search netted a lot more–almost all from blogs that could be characterized as quite right-wing in their outlook, and that take as the lesson here that Jefferson obtained a Koran because he wanted to understand the religious motivations of his “radical Muslim” enemy. I will not pretend to know if that is correct. I just find this an ironic and fascinating window on how different sides of the American political spectrum draw different lessons from what should never have been controversial in the first place: The decision of a Muslim elected to Congress to swear his oath in the way that he would find most personally binding. That is, after all, the purpose of the oath.

(And to conclude on a somewhat more “core” F&V theme, even more remarkable for me in all this is that there is only one Muslim in the US Congress, and none ever before this week. There are probably over five million Muslims in the USA, or very roughly 1.6% of the population.)

A heartbeat and an act of cronyism away

With Tim Johnson (Democrat, South Dakota) in critical condition after brain surgery, the Republican party is a heartbeat and one act of partisan cronyism away from regaining what the voters stripped it of in November’s election: Control of the United States Senate.

The state’s governor is a Republican, and among the many archaic anti-democratic elements of the US system of government is the rule that permits the governor of a state to appoint a replacement when a US Senator leaves office before the end of a term.

It is long past time to reform the mechanism for filling Senate vacancies. We should require a special election, just as is the case for vacant House seats. (The rule for the Senate is that the appointed replacement serves till the next general election and only then is there a special election. That would be 2008, and in this case the seat would have been up then anyway.) The governor’s nominee in the event Johnson cannot remain in office would require confirmation of the state legislature–controlled by the Republican party.

A Republican replacement would result in a 50-49-1 Senate. The one is, of course, independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who has pledged to continue to caucus with the Democrats, despite defeating the Democratic nominee with an electoral coalition in 2006 that was overwhelmingly Republican and independent. Presumably, as was the case in January–May, 2001, if there were fifty Democrats (counting Lieberman) and fifty Republicans (with the appointed South Dakota replacement), the parties would evenly divide the committees and the agenda. But on any legislative matter or confirmation vote on which the GOP caucus was united, the Vice President’s tiebreaker–itself a vestige of bad institutional design–would tip the outcome in the Republicans’ favor.

I do not know if a Democrat would win a special election in South Dakota. Johnson won an extremely close reelection in 2002 (in an election in which a Libertarian had nearly six times the votes as the margin over the Republican) and the other Demcoratic Senator was defeated in 2004. However, 2006 was a very different year politically than in 2002 and 2004 (and particularly so in South Dakota!). Besides, it is the voters, and not partisan state officials, who should determine this critical (or any) seat.

Florida election failure

No, this is not about 2000, thought the sixth anniversary of the coup that “legitimized” the Florida fraud of that year will be upon us soon. Rather, this is about the under-vote rate this year in the the state’s 13th House district (yes, the one formerly held by the Fraud Facilitator herself), which is, at the very least, suspicious.

More at LGM, whose concluding remarks this comparative psephologist most wholeheartedly endorses:

If we keep up the local control fetish and the lack of an effective recount process (which is exacerbated by electronic voting), it’s not a question of if we’ll get another 2000, but when. [emphasis added]

Electoral reform advances in USA

Ballot measures for IRV and STV won in all four jurisdictions in which they were on the ballot in the US midterm elections:

    Oakland, California (IRV for all city offices)
    Davis, California (STV replaces at-large plurality for city offices*)
    Minneapolis, Minnesota (IRV for major offices, STV for some others)
    Pierce County, Washington (IRV for nearly all county offices)

All passed quite easily, with the closest being 54% (Pierce County).


* Advvisory measure.

The US Congress result

Yes, of course, I am very happy. Just too busy celebrating to post. Madison can rest in peace again. Still, the House gains were at the very low end of what I thought possible. The Senate, on the other hand, was the best outcome I could imagine.

No further analysis till the aggregate vote totals are in. The USA is the only (allegedly) advanced democracy in which aggregate national party vote totals are not immediately available. Given that I am one of those few (the only?) psephologists who actually use aggregate national party vote totals to understand US elections, I can’t do any analysis yet. I won’t be able to say for a while whether the House result was closer to my projection based on low responsiveness (225) than to a projection based on the longer-range relationship of votes and seats (245) because of a vote swing lower than could have been expected for such an unpopular president, or if the seat swing was low for the aggregate vote swing that resulted. Fortunately, majority control is a (mostly) binary outcome.

Once I have the time to look at all the completed district results, I can revisit my comparison of this election to 1994 in terms relative seat safety and swing propensity.

So, stay tuned. In the meantime, enjoy checks and balances again. Apparently, the Republican Party is not the PRI and Bush is not Putin, after all.

Protest or research

An additional note has been appended to this post since it first appeared.

Sometimes, my desire to use my vote as an act of protest conflicts with my desire to use the act of voting as a means to conduct research.

San Diego County is using electronic touch-screen voting again (for the first time since its use in the 2003 recall election)–this time with a printed verification of how the machine (supposedly) has registered your vote.

I count myself among those who are at least skeptical about these electronic voting devices. Not in a conspiratorial way, but I just feel more confident about voting on paper. (I also like hand-counted ballots, by the way.) The County allows a voter to request a paper ballot. Presumably, if massive numbers did so, they would not have enough–their running out would only increase the protest value, I suppose, but in any event, it is our right to request a paper ballot at the polling place.* I considered doing so, as a protest against those electronic beasts in the polling room.

On the other hand, I really wanted to see how this newfangled contraption–with the paper record printed beneath a clear plastic window–would work. After all, I actually get paid to think, write, and teach about voting, and it is useful to know how different systems work.

In the end, my “research” curiosity won out. And it was easy and fun. Did my vote count? Who knows. Then again, I am in fully safe districts for everything I voted on (unless one or more of the measures proves to be close), so it hardly matters–except in the sense of performing the most important duty any citizen of a democracy can perform; and in the research value. (And luckily, I could still protest, as well, in my selection of mostly third-party candidates, just like always.)

* There was a little controversy here overnight, with a judge rejecting a lawsuit aimed at forcing the election authorities both to provide more paper ballots and to count them tonight (when they count the machines), rather than on Thursday (as the official intend). Is there any fairness issue here? I must admit that I do not see it. While I would prefer that my vote be counted the same, regardless of how I cast it (with the obvious exception of late-arriving absentee or provisional ballots), I can’t see what difference it actually makes. They all get added together, and if the race is close enough, we’ll just have to wait till the paper ballots (and others left outstanding tonight) are counted.