Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Read: how to actually change someone's mind.

The below three readings are all links to research papers related to how to engage and persuade those who disagree with you.

You can't "prove someone wrong."  When presented with news articles or reports that directly contradict their beliefs, many people will exhibit a "backfire effect" -- doubling down on their beliefs and entrenching them even more strongly.  This is currently on display in an extreme form as Trump calls any critical reporting "fake news."
Previous research in political science has found that it is possible to change issue opinions by directly providing relevant facts to subjects (Kuklinski et al. 2000; Gilens 2001; Howell and West 2009). However, such authoritative statements of fact (such as those provided by a survey interviewer to a subject) are not reflective of how citizens typically receive information. Instead, people typically receive corrective information within ‘‘objective’’ news reports pitting two sides of an argument against each other, which is significantly more ambiguous than receiving a correct answer from an omniscient source. In such cases, citizens are likely to resist or reject arguments and evidence contradicting their opinions—a view that is consistent with a wide array of research (e.g. Lord et al. 1979; Edwards and Smith 1996; Redlawsk 2002; Taber and Lodge 2006).
In this paper, we report the results of two rounds of experiments investigating the extent to which corrective information embedded in realistic news reports succeeds in reducing prominent misperceptions about contemporary politics. In each of the four experiments, which were conducted in fall 2005 and spring 2006, ideological subgroups failed to update their beliefs when presented with corrective information that runs counter to their predispositions. Indeed, in several cases, we find that corrections actually strengthened misperceptions among the most strongly committed subjects.
Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler (2010)

Liberals and conservatives have different fundamental values, making it hard to craft persuasive arguments.  It's better to appeal to those values, not your own, if you want to change someone's mind.  And even more persuasive than that are the arguments of a conservative -- someone who holds their same values.
MFT researchers surveyed thousands of people around the world regarding the concerns that were morally relevant to them (Graham et al., 2009; Graham et al., 2011). Results led to the proposal of five primary moral foundations—harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. Importantly, this research finds that liberals tend to endorse foundations based on caring and protection from harm (harm) and maintenance of fairness and reciprocity (fairness) more strongly than conservatives.  However, conservatives tend to endorse moral concerns related to ingroup-loyalty (loyalty), respect for authority (authority), and protection of purity and sanctity (purity) more than liberals. Related research largely supports these findings (Caprara et al., 2006; Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003; Lakoff, 2002; Thorisdottir et al., 2007), and together, this body of work indicates that liberals possess stronger moral convictions related to fundamental aspects of harm and fairness (e.g., benevolence, nurturance, equality, social justice), and conservatives possess stronger convictions related to group loyalty, authority, and purity (e.g., patriotism, traditionalism, strictness, religious sanctity).
The results of our studies suggest that arguments appealing to the messenger’s values rather than the audience’s values were not only unpersuasive to the target audience but also did not impact the attitudes of those already in favor of the political position being argued for. For instance, conservatives presented with a military spending argument grounded in loyalty and authority concerns did not show any greater support for military spending than conservatives presented with an argument grounded in fairness concerns.
We found that the morally reframed arguments conservatives wrote in favor of official English were more persuasive to the liberal targets than the other messages, and this difference was mediated by the extent to which liberal participants reported that the message resonated with their moral values more.
Although our results demonstrate the efficacy of framing moral arguments in terms that appeal to the values of those on the other side of the political spectrum, the method could have a variety of unintended consequences. Appealing to the other side’s values might reinforce or validate those values (e.g., Lakoff, 2002). For instance, if liberals reframe support for same-sex marriage in terms of the more conservative moral principles, their arguments may legitimize those principles, facilitating their use to support conservative positions in the future. Relatedly, advocates might be reluctant to use moral reframing because they feel doing so compromises their own beliefs, a position apparently taken by a small number of participants in the above auxiliary study. Furthermore, moral reframing could lead advocates to assimilate to, or soften in their views of values they previously opposed.
Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer (2015) and supported by further research in 2016.

In an extended argument (and in this case, specifically confined to the Internet), the first few people to argue for a position are more likely to be successful, perhaps because extended debate only hardens beliefs.  They also found that conversations with people who were specifically willing to engage on an issue didn't display the "backfire effect" discussed above, but being too intense was still a problem.
We find (example above to the contrary) that a challenger that enters the fray before another tends to have a higher likelihood of changing the OP’s opinion; this holds even for first-time CMV challengers, and so is not a trivial consequence of more experienced disputants contriving to strike first. Although engaging the OP in some back-and-forth is correlated with higher chances of success, we do not see much OP conversion in extended conversations. As for opinion conversion rates, we find that the more participants there are in the effort to persuade the OP, the larger the likelihood of the OP changing her view; but, interestingly, the relationship is sublinear.
Style features and interplay features both prove useful and outperform a strong baseline that uses bag-of-words. In particular, interplay features alone have strong predictive power, achieving an improvement of almost 5% in accuracy over the baseline method (65.1% vs 59.6%) in a completely fresh heldout dataset. Our results also show that it is useful to include links as evidence—an interesting contrast to studies of the backfire effect: “When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger." However, it hurts to be too intense in the counterargument. The feature with the most predictive power of successful persuasion is the dissimilarity with the original post in word usage, while existing theories mostly study matching in terms of attitude functions or subject self-discrepancy.
Chenhao Tan, Vlad Niculae, Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, and Lillian Lee (2016) (PDF)

Monday, February 27, 2017

Listen: the Yemen raid was bad, but not wrong... it's the cover-up that's wrong. (Updated)

By now, you have probably heard of the raid in Yemen that went wrong.  It was the first military action ordered by President Trump, and reportedly everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.  As best we know at this point, the intent was to capture top militants and seize a cache of intelligence, but it went badly awry right from the start:
In this case, the assault force of several dozen commandos, which also included elite soldiers from the United Arab Emirates, was jinxed from the start. Qaeda fighters were somehow tipped off to the stealthy advance toward the village — perhaps by the whine of American drones that local tribal leaders said were flying lower and louder than usual.
With the crucial element of surprise lost, the Americans and Emiratis found themselves in a gun battle with Qaeda fighters who took up positions in other houses, a clinic, a school and a mosque, often using women and children as cover, American military officials said in interviews this week.
The commandos were taken aback when some of the women grabbed weapons and started firing, multiplying the militant firepower beyond what they had expected. The Americans called in airstrikes from helicopter gunships and fighter aircraft that helped kill some 14 Qaeda fighters, but not before an MV-22 Osprey aircraft involved in the operation experienced a “hard landing,” injuring three more American personnel on board. The Osprey, which the Marine Corps said cost $75 million, was badly damaged and had to be destroyed by an airstrike. (New York Times)
It's hard to say definitively right now, but current reporting suggests that the operation cost the military the death of a Navy SEAL and 25 others (among them nine local children), millions of dollars of equipment and espionage costs, and a severe blow to our relations with a crucial local ally as Yemen threatened to cut off American access for further missions.  And even worse, it appears that all of this blood and treasure was expended for little results: the videos retrieved by the raid were ten years old and there was "no significant intelligence" obtained.  The father of the dead SEAL wants answers and is denouncing Trump for "hiding behind [his] son's death."

In every way, it was a mess.  And if this was the end of the story, then it would be hard to criticize the president for the raid.

That might be hard to hear, since it went so badly in every way, and since reportedly he authorized it after a briefing over a meal (which seems too insecure or informal, and therefore incongruous and wrong).  But just because a mission might be risky or launched on the basis of incomplete intelligence does not mean it is a bad idea.  Every military mission is the product of a probabilistic assessment: is the potential goal worth the potential risks when allowing for a potential degree of uncertainty?  It's very hard to say that, right now and with what we know, that this was a bad bet to make.

Some gambles pay off.  The Osama bin Ladin raid was a gamble, but it succeeded in almost every way -- despite the loss of an aircraft and some surprises waiting for the assault team.  President Obama's orders didn't always turn out so well... his first military operation, after all, was a missile strike that mistakenly hit a civilian target, killing dozens of innocents.

If we say that President Trump was wrong to green-light this raid, then we should probably -- in fairness -- admit that we suddenly require certainty of success in all military operations.  And that's not realistic.  That's just tribalism.

So let's not be outraged about the Yemen raid.  Let's be sad for the loss of life.

No, save your outrage for the cover-up.

At issue is the ability of the Trump administration to be honest.  NBC News has a recap of their responses as matters have developed:
The White House has repeatedly called the Yemen mission a success. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said on Feb. 8 that anyone "who undermines the success of that raid owes an apology and [does] a disservice to the life of Chief Owens."
"We gathered an unbelievable amount of intelligence that will prevent the potential deaths or attacks on American soil," said Spicer.
A Defense Department official also pushed back Monday afternoon, saying the raid has yielded "a significant amount" of intelligence.
But the only example the military has provided turned out to be an old bomb-making video that was of no current value.
On Monday, Spicer addressed the remarks of Bill Owens, whose son died.
"I can tell him that on behalf of the president, his son died a hero and the information that he was able to help obtain through that raid, as I said before, is going to save American lives," he said. "The mission was successful in helping prevent a future attack or attacks on this nation."
Multiple senior officials told NBC News they have not seen evidence to support that claim.
There's the problem.  Or rather, two problems:

Lack of credibility.  The Trump White House repeatedly and without evidence has declared that the raid was a success.  The difficult but correct thing would be to exhibit some temperance -- to say that they mourned the losses and problems, but that it was too early to judge the success or failure of the raid.  Instead, as so often, this White House went straight to fact-free bluster.  This diminishes their credibility in the eyes of the nation and the eyes of the world, yet again.  It's not just wrong, it's stupid... the nation should be able to trust the Press Secretary and the President.  In a time of emergency, that trust could unite the country and save lives.  They risk it with every shameless lie.

Moral cowardice.  I'm sorry, there's just no other way to put it.  It is cowardly to suggest that all criticism of the raid's success is somehow illegitimate because an American soldier died during the operation.  It is evil to attempt to use a tragedy as a shield from accountability.

Too often, we focus on style over substance.  Folks get upset over how Kellyanne Conway is sitting on a couch in a photo, how Trump eats his steaks, or something asinine he said.  All of that is style -- handwringing over optics or crassness or logorrhea.  And this might seem to be a similar problem of style, but it's not.

The real substance here is a White House that is afraid of criticism and unafraid of deceit.  Focus on that and hunt down the truth.

UPDATE:  The raid played a key role in the president's address to Congress last night.  Perhaps sensitive to recent stories, Trump spoke touchingly of the SEAL team member who was lost during the raid, praising him and comforting his wife over the soldier's sacrifice.  It was a remarkable and excellent moment in a speech that otherwise dwelt on unrealistic promises and absurd statistics.

The president also doubled-down, however, on the value of the raid: “I just spoke to General Mattis," said Trump, "who reconfirmed that, and I quote, ‘Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies.’”  And backing him up this morning, Vice President Mike Pence concurred.

This directly contradicts credible reporting from a variety of sources.  And while it's possible that the White House is telling the truth and reporters are wrong, past events have not been kind to that theory.  With remarkably few exceptions in the past month, conflicts between good reporting and administration accounts have usually shaken out in favor of The New York Times or Buzzfeed or The New York Times, not Sean Spicer or Donald J. Trump.

It is possible that the NBC News report is wrong.  They clearly have confidence in the veracity and access of their sources, but those sources might have misled them or might be out of the loop.  It's also possible that we may never find out either way, or the answer will be subjective.  The White House had better hope so, though, since they have unambiguously doubled-down on their version of the story in the most prominent way possible.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Listen: sometimes it's easy to lose track of how historic this past year has been.

Melissa McEwan of Shakesville recently posted a tweetstorm about the 2016 campaign and aftermath.  She was writing in response to the "controversy" of Tom Perez winning the leadership of the DNC over Keith Ellison. It shouldn't actually be much of a controversy, since reportedly Perez had the backing of President Obama, in whose cabinet Perez had most recently served as Secretary of Labor.  But the media likes simple stories of factionalism and the idea of a schism has been gleefully stoked by Trump supporters and the president himself, so here we are.  I have assembled and edited much of her tweetstorm into readable paragraph form, below:
I have stayed out of all the DNC chair stuff, but I feel obliged to say something about this "business as usual" narrative.  Let's take a look back at the 2016 campaign for a moment.

The Dem primary saw a woman and a Jewish man take turns making history by being the first woman or Jewish person to win primaries/caucuses.  The party eventually nominated the first female major party candidate in history.  She then ran on the most progressive platform the Democrats have ever put forward.  The breakout speaker at that convention was a Muslim man: Khizr Khan.  That convention also featured the first ever trans speaker at a major party convention: Sarah McBride.  Hillary Clinton's campaign had the most diverse campaign staff ever, including a gay campaign manager: Robby Mook.  Eventually, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million votes, getting more votes than any white male candidate ever.

The DNC just elected the first Latino chair ever, Tom Perez.   Had his strongest contender, Keith Ellison, won, the DNC would have elected its first Black Muslim chair.  Ellison will serve as deputy chair of the DNC, so Dems will be led by a Latino and a Muslim.

All of this is being described as "business as usual."  I don't know what political system you've been looking at, but that is not "business as usual."  This is the perfidy of the argument that "identity politics" don't matter. It allows people to ignore and dismiss marginalized leaders and the people whom they represent at the table -- many of whom have never had that sort of representation before.
McEwan is right.  These are all accomplishments -- and strengths.  It elevates and strengthens the Democratic Party and the leadership of our nation to incorporate the disparate voices of many different types of people.  Let's not lose sight of that, and let's keep charging forward.

Resist and persist.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Listen: Obamacare will be fine.

This is going to be strange to hear, but Obamacare is probably going to be just fine -- and so are almost all of the people who have gotten healthcare from it.  There are three main reasons for my conclusion: electoral, structural, and ideological.

The most compelling reason is probably the electoral one: many politicians have good reason to be terrified of the consequences of throwing vast numbers of people in their districts off of health insurance.  Here's a map from EnrollAmerica that shows, county by county, how much the uninsured rate dropped across the continental United States. The bluer, the better:

Politics aside, you'll notice that this is a very blue map.  With few exceptions (and those mostly in very sparsely populated areas in Arizona or the Dakotas), the ranks of the uninsured have dropped.  That's not surprising; nationwide, thirteen million more people have healthcare thanks to Obamacare.

Now, many Republican politicians were happy to rail against Obamacare as long as a Democrat was president, since it's easy to attack the law: like with any healthcare reform, there were winners and losers (more on that in a bit).  But now that Republicans control both houses of Congress and the presidency, they suddenly have the burden of actual governance.  And so if they repeal Obamacare and people get hurt -- and people would get hurt -- then those people will angrily vote their politicians out of office.

Look at Oklahoma and tell me Obamacare repeal is going to be an easy sell there, after most of the state has seen their uninsured rates drop by 10-15%.

Or Alaska (which had the unpopulated northern regions lose coverage, but the populated southern areas expand coverage):

Democrats will need just three Republicans to defect from any Republican plan, and there are a lot of people who were helped by Obamacare.  Alas, they're only starting to realize that now, once it's under threat, but better late than never.  For the first time since its passage, Obamacare is popular.

"Okay," you might be saying, "but what if they repeal Obamacare but also pass something that helps those people?"

Well, first of all, that would be awesome.  If we could somehow trick Trump into backing universal healthcare and branding it TrumpCare, then I would be ecstatic.  It even seems within the realm of possibility -- Trump only seems to have convictions about the criminal tendencies of certain races and the imperative requirement to "make better deals" with other countries, so healthcare policy might be up for grabs.  If you see him, please mention how simple and brilliant a "Medicare for all" policy would be, okay?

But frankly, healthcare reform is incredibly hard for plain structural reasons, especially in a country like ours.  Insurance companies, healthcare providers, the healthy, and the sick all have strong interests in the outcome, and those interests often directly oppose others.  For example, the young and healthy want to buy little or no insurance (since they don't need it), but the sick want everyone to buy insurance (since it's the healthy people with coverage who subsidize the healthcare of the sick).  Obamacare solved this problem by requiring everyone to get insurance, but also taxed rich people to help pay for it all.

As New York's Jonathan Chait sums it up:
Obamacare was not a perfectly designed law, but it did reflect a kind of political genius. It found a way to pay for access for the uninsured with minimal disruption to the status quo. Obamacare did create some losers: The very rich pay much higher taxes, and young, healthy people have to pay higher premiums on the individual market. (The latter could one day become winners under Obamacare should they grow unhealthy or un-young.) They made a lot of noise — remember the media freak-out over the tiny number of people who lost their plans in the individual market? — but they were vastly outnumbered by the winners: millions of people who could now have access to insurance who once could not afford it.
It's just very unlikely that Republicans will figure out a better plan.  All of their current proposals would hurt millions of voters, and it will be very hard to hide that fact.  Making it even worse for Republicans is the fact that they have little time to engineer and pass a plan, and they have a lot of constraints.  Because they want to avoid a Senate filibuster from the minority Democrats (which they couldn't break, since the GOP doesn't have 60 votes), they want to basically do as much as possible through a special "budget reconciliation" process.  The first step to that process was passing a 2017 budget that set them up for repeal.  But this method means that any plan has to be revenue-neutral and can't set up a whole lot of new programs.  Further, they now have until only a few months to pass a second budget reconciliation bill (for 2018) if they want to get it before the CBO for review in time to retain some of the payment mechanisms of Obamacare in their version.  Without those pay-fors, then replacement becomes even more difficult.

The long and short of it, then, is that it's going to be hard to pass any defensible replacement.  Now, these aren't ironclad guarantees: it's entirely possible that Republicans will be fervent enough to simply repeal Obamacare without a replacement or with a replacement that's terrible.  We can't discount that tribalism will win over self-interest.  But even if Obamacare is repealed, there's still the third reason why I think it will be -- despite that! -- okay.

It is a plain fact that Obamacare has cemented in place, forever, the idea that it is the government's job to help make sure everyone has healthcare.  The attitude of past eras, where a person's poverty and sickness was just their hard luck... well, that's over.  Even if Obamacare is repealed and replaced, consigned to history, the moral imperative placed on the government will remain.  We all get together and agree on ways to govern our country, to protect our people, and to care for our poor and elderly... and now, to make sure that our sick are helped.

In 2012, Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wis) said, fearfully, “This is really our last chance of stopping this and I think we really need to run the table, or this health care law, I fear, will be implemented. The history is once an entitlement is implemented it’s extremely difficult to turn back the clock.”  He was right.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Read: what the right is saying right now, a roundup.

It's important to listen to everyone -- even (maybe especially) people who think differently than yourself.  Here are what four different sites have to say in a general snapshot.  If you're interested, you can click through on any story.

National Review is the old-school conservative rag that tries to speak for the whole movement.  It virulently opposed Trump, even to the point of dedicating an entire issue during the primary campaign to "Against Trump" essays from dozens of conservative leaders.  Unfortunately, Trump won the election.  Now it's very hard to face up to the fact that they should -- according to everything they've said they believed for the past forty years -- still oppose him.

In the aftermath, they have tended to simply avoid commentary on the presidency, as astonishing as that might seem.  Other topics are more pressing, such as introspection of the movement and the wacky liberals who are still doing wacky things.  They have written about: the current flush of self-congratulation in a media that had abrogated its duty, the potential for primary challenges to devastate Democrats, how you shouldn't let hatred dictate your support, applause for the new immigration pro-deport guidelines, why so many corporations are acting so liberal, how Trump's seemingly irrational outbursts are in fact cleverly designed to achieve his ends, and the Trump Organization's "unnecessary" entanglements with the Emoluments Clause.

Further to the right, RedState is a fiery conservative site that has often called for primary challenges to help push the GOP further right. Once dominated by discussions about the presidency -- overwhelming criticism of Obama, of course -- it has shifted its focus.  During the campaign, the most prominent leaders of the site, particularly Erik Erickson and Ben Howe, were disgusted by Trump, but tribalism has taken hold.  Just like with NR, it's very uncomfortable for RedState to criticize a president who might repeal Obamacare, deliver tax cuts, and hurt LGBT rights. Alas, they're not making as good a show of it.

Accordingly, much of the commentary has switched to focus on the lower-level people they support or to attack Democrats and the media.  They have written about: a gutless Republican party that isn't willing to live up to its promises on repealing Obamacare, a heroic Nikki Haley defending Israel at the UN, a "loony left" that needs to get a job instead of constantly protesting, a corrupt Democratic Party that pretends to care about Russian interference in the election while taking money from foreign interests, the clever put-down that bloodless Mitch McConnell used at a recent town hall, a common-sense new immigration enforcement policy for "illegals" that liberals are being silly about, and how the partisan leftist media is going nuts and should have covered Obama more.

Even further to the right, there's the alt-right Breitbart.  Their former publisher, Stephen Bannon, is now a top adviser in the White House.  As you'd expect, they are enraptured with a glorious administration that has already been the most effective, masculine, powerful, throbbing presidency in the history of the universe.  They have written about: how most people support Trump and his immigration policies, how Sweden really is a terrifying hellscape of Muslims just like Trump said, how Ivanka Trump supports Jewish people and none of the Trumps are racist, heterosexual women are being persecuted by WNBA players, and "terrorists are being killed, locked up, and running scared now that a Commander-in-Chief has replaced an Apologizer-in-Chief."

And at the utmost extremity of Trump-worship, subreddit The_Donald, it's just one continuous paroxysm of praise and joy and mockery.  They have written about: how even Bernie Sanders is praising Trump for withdrawing from the TPP, how one of the people who claims he was hurt by the Muslim ban was caught lying, how a Trump supporter was attacked at Berkeley, how a Syrian refugee stabbed and killed a Swedish boy, and of how awesome it is that Trump threatened to defund Berkeley if the university didn't let Milo Yiannapoulis speak there (ok, that one hasn't aged well).

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Listen: American isn't suddenly different.

Hillary Clinton lost the election by fewer than 80,000 votes spread out among three states: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan.  She got three million more votes than Donald Trump, and if 80,000 voters -- total! -- had voted differently across those three states, then we would be talking about President Hillary Rodham Clinton.

What would that say about America?

The day after Election Day, a bunch of pundits would be writing lengthy explanations about how President Obama had been vindicated in his faith in the country, how no political party could rely on a coalition heavily dominated by whites and the elderly, and how even the appeal of nationalism and chill of paranoia wasn't enough to overcome Trump's glaring deficiencies.  In that world, Ted Cruz would be sorting out his staff for his 2020 run, Jeb Bush would let slip a mild I-told-you-so, and Ben Carson would have already settled into a cozy nap.  Folks like myself would be disturbed at the dark strain that had come to dominate an entire political party, but we'd feel vindicated.  I can see the Politico headline now: "MADAME PRESIDENT," with only a chiding warning about nationalism in the subtitle: "NARROW CLINTON VICTORY HINTS AT 2018 TROUBLE."

But here's the thing: that America is the same country as this one.

I'm not saying that the Trump administration can't or won't change the course of the nation or the world.  They're going to do some damage, believe me: civil rights are already under attack, the green-energy revolution is going to be slowed, and the incompetence and malice of a post-truth presidency will cost human lives.  Nor am I saying that our culture hasn't been changed or that it won't change more under the influence of a leader and a right-wing media that vocally scorn empiricism.

What I am saying is that America is not suddenly different.  You shouldn't feel afraid of your country or wonder what happened to it.  The overwhelming majority of Americans still believe in liberty, justice, compassion, honor, democracy, and truth.  Yes, some minority of our country were deceived by a world-class huckster and his craven enablers.  And yes, some minority of our country were justifiably terrified at the looming demise of their way of life.  And yes, some minority of our country were devoted entirely to single issues: guns, abortion, or the like.  And yes, there was even some small minority of our country that wanted to preserve a dominant white race or who just couldn't trust a female president.

But those minorities have always existed, and they were and are just that: minorities.

Remember that Hillary, never a particularly inspiring figure, ran a mediocre campaign after a bitter primary, and that both a foreign power and the FBI Director intervened in the election.  Remember that she was running as the first female nominee so that she could succeed the first black president after he had endured eight years of truly shocking obstruction by an amoral Republican Party.  Remember that many people were still complacent that she would win.

Remember all of that and then remember that despite it all a majority of Americans chose Hillary Rodham Clinton to be their president.

I don't believe in any sort of inevitable progression towards justice.  I believe you have to work for it -- that every generation is given their fight, and that this is ours.  It won't be easy.  But we can do it.

And if you ever fear your country, or feel alone... remember that a majority of Americans still value the things that you value.  Despite it all, we stood together.  We can do it again, if we try.

We don't need to fear America.  We are America.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Listen: prepare for the change of subject, since it's coming.

Batten down the hatches and prepare to hold the course: a storm is coming.  We can weather it, but you should be prepared.  Consider this your foul weather warning.

Trump has been battered by almost continual problems from the first moment of his presidency.  His inauguration crowd was smaller than Obama's crowd (which apparently matters a lot to him), the largest protest action in American history swamped the nation the next day, and since then it's been a relentless series of humiliations and mishaps.  It should have been the height of his glory, but instead he and his appointees are widely mocked and he's had trouble filling even the most basic positions on his staff.  He's gotten some good headlines (or the sort of headlines that he desires, rather) with some of his executive orders, but those have either been ineffectual hand-waving ("I hereby command you to come up with a plan to defeat ISIS in a really awesome way") or have been crushed in court.  And the press has relentlessly covered every rejection by a prospective nominee, every humiliation of incompetent management, and every botched and leaked decision.

His approval rating started off historically low, and keeps getting lower.  He can take comfort from Rasmussen polls of likely voters which show him with 55% support.  That's bad for a new president, but not abysmal.  But he seems congenitally incapable of ignoring the more established and well-respected Pew and Gallup polls, which have him at 40% and 42% approval.  As Gallup summed it up yesterday:
President Donald Trump's 40% job approval rating about one month into his presidency is 21 percentage points below the historical average rating for elected presidents in mid-February (61%). It is also 11 points below the lowest mid-February reading for any other president.

Crowds, polls, and headlines: these are the things that matter to President Donald J. Trump. And right now, they're all against him.  So you should be prepared when he tries to change the subject.

It seems like Trump's already on the job, trying to shift the narrative into something that he prefers -- away from substance and towards style.  He held an extremely long and strange press conference in which he was offensive, brash, bullying, ignorant, and bizarre.  He has renewed and intensified his attacks on the media, deliberately choosing provocative language.  And he's going back on the campaign trail, one of the safe spaces (along with his golf courses) that make him feel energized and loved.

I have to tell you, though: none of that is going to work.  This is a mismanaged White House that leaks like a sieve, operates with an incompetent crew of ideologues, and is riddled with juicy conflicts of interest and foreign intrigue.  Every journalist worth their salt is bored with stories about offensive language and wackiness -- they can smell the Pulitzers in the air, just waiting to be snapped up by today's Woodwards and Bernsteins.  They're going to keep pushing, chasing down the Russian connections and the discord among White House staffers.  And their media groups, flush with new subscribers from all over the country, will support them.

So there's going to be other moves and bigger ones to try to change the narrative.  According to the Department of Justice, the Muslim ban will be rescinded and re-issued later this week in a more constitutional form -- but that will just bring more lawsuits and perhaps more restraining orders.  It seems like Trump is unlikely to leave it at that.

So what are we looking at?  What should you be prepared for?

More executive actions are one item that could be brought forward.  A big flashy order on deportations or immigration or the border wall, for example -- ending or continuing DACA, redirecting specifics funds to start construction of the wall, implementing harsher policies at the border.  Or a military order might be possible -- deploying a carrier fleet somewhere as a statement, maybe, or launching some big new initiative against ISIS.  These are all things that are completely under Trump's control and can make big headlines without actually meaning much or requiring much work.  A lot of his executive orders have been toothless, but toothless public relations can still gum up newspaper headlines.

Less likely are legislative solutions.  Obamacare repeal, even in some symbolic small parts, could be introduced.  Any such bill would be hopelessly rushed and would imperil actually getting it done (since any version introduced outside of the "reconciliation" budget process would die in the Senate), but Trump doesn't seem to care about that sort of thing.  Tax reform could also be introduced, even if it would also be similarly symbolic.  Or he could introduce some measure for infrastructure spending, and hope to bully Congress into passing it with debt-driven financing.

You'll notice that many of these possibilities are bad and most of them are dumb.  Some of them are scary, too.  But it's important to also notice that none of these will end the country, and all of them can be undone, either in two years or four.  And even though odds are decent that I can't even begin to anticipate Trump's next erratic and nonsensical move, I see no avenues of great danger to our republic that are open to him at the moment and I see many institutions ready to resist him.

So this is my message: prepare for his next big move as he tries to change the subject, don't be surprised by it, and remember that we will continue to fight and resist.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Read: the struggles of Trump to get anything done.

"The 5 biggest disagreements Republicans have on Obamacare," by Andrew Prokop.  Vox.
It’s become evident that there is little GOP unity on how much a replacement plan should cost, how to pay for it, whether the Medicaid expansion should be rolled back, or how to fix the individual markets.
Furthermore, there is no evident agreement even on extremely broad questions such as, “What should the goals of the GOP’s replacement plan be?”
Accordingly, many Republicans in both the House and Senate are increasingly fearful about moving to roll back Obamacare too quickly when so little is settled about what comes after it. And their problems are compounded by the fact that while a reasonably comprehensive repeal bill could be rammed through with just 50 Senate votes plus Vice President Mike Pence, a serious replacement bill would need 60 Senate votes, at least eight of which would have to come from Democrats.
"G.O.P.’s Grand Visions for Congress Now Look Like a Mirage," by Jennifer Steinhauer.  New York Times.
The large infrastructure bill that both Democrats and Mr. Trump were eager to pursue has barely been mentioned, other than a very general hearing to discuss well-documented needs for infrastructure improvements. Even a simple emergency spending bill that the Trump administration promised weeks ago — which was expected to include a proposal for his wall on the Mexican border — has not materialized, leaving appropriators idle and checking Twitter.
At this point in Barack Obama’s presidency, when Democrats controlled Washington, Congress had passed a stimulus bill totaling nearly $1 trillion to address the financial crisis, approved a measure preventing pay discrimination, expanded a children’s health insurance program, and begun laying the groundwork for major health care and financial regulation bills. President George W. Bush came into office with a congressional blueprint for his signature education act, No Child Left Behind.
But in the 115th Congress, the Senate has done little more than struggle to confirm Mr. Trump’s nominees, and Republicans ultimately helped force his choice for labor secretary, Andrew F. Puzder, to withdraw from consideration on Wednesday in the face of unified Democratic opposition.
"Remember How Trump Was Going to Erase Obama’s Legacy Overnight? Yeah, Not So Much," by Jonathan Chait.  New York.
 Republicans in Congress have made no more progress in developing a partywide alternative in the three and a half months since the election than they made in the seven years before that. Their only options are to keep the current system, or some version thereof, or inflict cruelty upon millions and massive disruption to an industry that accounts for a fifth of the economy. “I would say it’s not that easy to repeal it,” concedes Representative Peter King. “The entire repeal is in mortal danger,” admits Representative Trent Franks.
Republican messaging heavily emphasized the notion that Obama governed largely through the issuing of executive orders, which supposedly left his agenda vulnerable to a quick reversal. Trump has illustrated how fallacious that notion was. The new president has issued a flurry of executive orders, but — with the exception of the immigration order, which was a fiasco — these orders have mostly been symbolic vehicles for communicating goals, rather than actual policy changes.
"The Formidable Checks and Balances Imposing on President Trump," by Ronald Brownstein.  The Atlantic.
But in fact Trump is facing effective questioning from virtually every counterforce, at home and abroad, that can constrain a president. A partial list would include federal courts, the career federal civil service, the “deep state” of the intelligence and law-enforcement communities, spirited investigative-reporting teams, a highly energized public opposition, state and local governments, and other nations. With Republicans determined to bolster Trump, Congress has been conspicuously absent from this list, though the squall of GOP senators demanding broader investigation of the administration’s Russia dealings following the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn may signal a change. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Listen: Flynn shows that our institutions are strong.

I'm not a blind optimist.  Even though my purpose here is to reassure my readers, that reassurance is based exclusively on what I honestly think is the truth.  It wouldn't help anyone if I was willfully ignorant or deceitful about what I think will happen, so I tell it as straight and seriously as I can.

Unfortunately, there's a lot of nonsense out there.  Many people have an interest in ginning up outrage or disgust, and so Facebook is filled with false alarms or gross exaggerations.  Is it possible that Donald Trump will try to enact a fascist revolution?  Sure.  Is it possible that he will try to marginalize the free press?  Yes.  Is it possible that he will start a war?  Maybe.  But there's a difference between realistically talking about possibilities and spinning that into probabilities.

It was always possible that President Trump would manage to cripple or destroy the institutions of America that stand in his way: an independent judiciary, a stable bureaucracy, a co-equal legislature, a free press, and academia.  But -- despite what you might read on Facebook -- none of this damage looks very probable at the moment.

Our institutions are strong.  They're resisting.  We're winning.

I've mentioned this before: when we lost on DeVos, when I talked about our system of checks and balances, and when I spun the nightmare scenario of a Cruz presidency.  It's a theme I will return to in the future, because it bears repeating and celebrating: the nation has not crumbled before Trump.  It's risen up.

The Muslim ban -- nullified nationwide by a half-dozen disgusted courts -- was one example, but the recent departure of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn is another.  The media picked up on his unsavory connections to Russia immediately, and have doggedly followed the story.  The bureaucracy and career officials found no internal outlet for dissent and dismay about Flynn's behavior and lies, and so they became steadily more amenable to giving details to the the persistent reporters.  And now Congress, pushed into action, is moved to investigate.

The President and his people have a lot of power and a lot of clout -- but if they intended to try to grind down everyone else, they've failed.  Our institutions are standing strong.  Want to help?  Subscribe to a newspaper.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Listen: this has happened before, part two.

History doesn't always advance smoothly towards progress.  Sometimes it's rough.  That doesn't mean you quit.  It means the opposite: never stop resisting.

Again, we turn to history, looking at another time when the nation made dramatic advances -- such as recent advances in healthcare or with the environment -- only to face an angry reaction.  We turn to Reconstruction and "Redemption."

Success in the Civil War brought about a difficult problem: how to deal with the South?  They'd fought for slavery and states' rights and a vision of a class-based agrarian society, and while they'd lost the martial conflict, those cultural differences remained.  It was a moral dilemma: do you restrict the rights of a people to govern themselves through democracy, or do you stand aside and permit a tyrannous majority to oppress an entire race?  Neither option was consistent with the American ideal of self-determination.

Reconstruction was the clumsy, confused, inconsistent, and contentious solution.  President Lincoln and his successors, Johnson and Grant, all tried to find a middle path.  The South had become so addicted to institutionalized oppression that it had lurched into a hopeless war, and so the only apparent remedy was rehabilitation.  The society of the South was sick, and so the North tried to cure it.

It didn't work.  The North set up the Freedman's Bureau to help monitor civil rights and offer assistance to freed slaves; they kept the army deployed throughout much of the region to enforce peace; they built infrastructure and schools; they came down in droves as "carpetbaggers" to spread their ideals; and they denied leading Confederates the vote or the right to run for office.  It was not a smooth process: Johnson in particular clashed repeatedly with Congress, and the KKK and other revanchist elements continually fought to regain control and oppress their enemies.

In the end, a weary country, stressed by division between and within North and South, simply washed their hands of it.

America had gone to war to fight for the good, but it had been hard and unsatisfying.  Progress had been slow and difficult.  Heroes had fallen short in managing to achieve effective change, breaking promises like the proverbial "forty acres and a mule."  And the South was so angry all the time... the White League and the Red Shirts attacked African-Americans who spoke out, terrorized carpet-baggers, and there was frequent talk of armed insurrection (even before the "stolen" election of 1877).

While many kept fighting in government and elsewhere, resurgent Confederate sympathizers led "Redemption" -- the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of the Jim Crow era in the South.  For the next century, African-Americans were denied the vote, consistently abused, and terrorized.  And even after that era ended, three centuries of horror and injustice have remained with us, embedded in culture and institutions.  The work of scholars like Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow) and writers like Ta-nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me) illustrates how African-Americans must still regularly struggle against the problems bequeathed to them by America's original sin.

The war against slavery was half-won, and even today we struggle out of the purgatory left by Reconstruction and Redemption.

So then, what can we learn to apply to today's struggles?

This bit of history is grim and reminds us that we continually work towards a more perfect union, first of all.  The Know-Nothings were a flash-in-the-pan, but the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow remains with us still.  But as we continue to do that work, we can also look to prevent another failure.  We can learn from our mistakes, just as we learn from successes.  And the lessons of Reconstruction and Redemption might be manifold, but two will serve us today:

First of all, we should remember that this is important.  Your marching, boycotting, and calling will actually matter.  And should we fall short, that will actually matter, too.  It will all be okay because we work at it.

Secondly, we must resist.  We must resist whenever we can.  Whenever we have the energy or the heart or the words.  Failures will happen.  But they can't stop us.  There's no town hall coming near you?  Call your representative and demand one.  You can't get through?  Call three times a day until you get to deliver your message.  They're ignoring you?  Schedule a town hall without them in a local public building, put up fliers to invite everyone, and inform the press.

Resist and persist.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Listen: we lost on DeVos, but that's okay. Put it in context.

"ἂν ἔτι μίαν μάχην Ῥωμαίους νικήσωμεν, ἀπολούμεθα παντελῶς."
Today, Betsy DeVos was confirmed by the United States Senate to be the next Secretary of Education for President Donald J. Trump.  Despite weeks of outraged calls and emails and letters, we were not able to flip more than two Republicans.  Only Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins voted against her, and because the Republicans have a two-vote majority, that made it a tie.  Vice President Mike Pence performed his only constitutional duty and broke the tie, voting to confirm DeVos.  In a statement after the vote, DeVos wrote, "I appreciate the Senate's diligence and am honored to serve as Education Secretary. Let's improve options and outcomes for all US students."

We lost, right?

Listen, I've said this before, but it's still true: Donald Trump is the newly-elected president of the country and he has majorities in both houses of Congress.  He should not have any trouble at all in confirming pretty much all of his nominees, particularly not Education.

Trump has gone longer with fewer of his nominees being confirmed than any previous president.

In part, this is his own fault: his transition team was notoriously tempestuous, with its original leader (Chris Christie), his team, and all of their work ejected halfway through.  Trump has also nominated people with an unusually high number of ethical or financial problems.  His nominee for HHS, Sen. Tom Price, has a penchant for using his position to enrich himself.  His nominee for labor, Richard Puzder, not only had been employing an undocumented immigrant (which famously has sunk several nominees in past administrations) but is also a stereotype of the rapacious corporate monster type. Neither has been confirmed yet, although the Price vote is coming soon (Puzder isn't even out of committee yet!).

But still, it's very unusual for a new president with a compliant Congress to have so much trouble installing his nominees, especially since the rules were weakened in the last Congress to make it easier.  And the strain is taking a toll on him.

Look at Trump's polling.  The Gallup Daily has his approval dropping down to about 43% and hovering there, essentially at the level of Republican partisans.  And his disapproval?  It's gone from a terrible 45%, unprecedentedly low for a new president, all the way to 54%.

And the lower he goes, the more his allies will abandon him.

That's what we saw with the DeVos vote.  The president has been in office two weeks and his own party is already voting against him.  President Trump is so unpopular that he will go down in history as the first president to need a Vice-Presidential tie-breaker to get a nominee confirmed.  The fight to just barely confirm a famously terrible nominee hurt him even more -- grizzly bear attacks are now a joke around schools -- and broke the solidarity of his party.  We should hope all of our "losses" are like this one.

Plutarch tells a story about a war between Pyrrhus of Epirus and the Roman Republic.  After one great battle between the two powers, Pyrrhus found that he was victorious: the enemy was destroyed.  But the cost had been heavy, and almost all of his own soldiers were dead as well.  And so when a soldier congratulated Pyrrhus on his victory, the king wryly replied, "ἂν ἔτι μίαν μάχην Ῥωμαίους νικήσωμεν, ἀπολούμεθα παντελῶς."

Or, in English:  "If we are so victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined."

Monday, February 6, 2017

Listen: this has happened before, part one.

I think we like to flatter ourselves that Trump is a unique figure in American history: blustering, cruel, and (most powerfully of all) shameless.  And we like to think that there has never been a time in history when human rights significantly receded; we prefer to imagine a long, relentless moral ascension.  And finally, we believe that there's never been a movement of Americans that was scared or angry enough to knowingly spurn our heritage of immigration or our values.

All of that is incorrect.  As Mark Twain may have said, "History doesn't repeat itself... but it does rhyme."  And while you might find it depressing that America has, in times past, met its fair share of demagogues, moral recidivism, and populist paranoia, I think it's heartening.  After all, America didn't just endure these evils... we defeated them.  We can do it again.

This is a three-part series.  We start with the Know-Nothings.

The Know-Nothings were a movement of conspiratorial-minded white Protestant men, from the middle-class and lower-class, who strongly opposed immigration and the perceived threat of Catholicism.  In the 1850s, the Whig Party was collapsing, but the Republicans had not yet arisen.  In the wake of the declining Whigs, sprang up a new movement of those who found the influx of German and Irish immigrants to be frightening and offensive, and who declared that the religion of Catholicism was incompatible with America.  The name came from secretive groups that met in private, and who -- when asked if they knew anything about the movement -- were supposed to answer, "I know nothing."

The party achieved considerable local success in major metropolitan areas in 1854 and 1855.  They took over the whole government of Massachusetts, and fielded successful candidates for mayor in Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Philadelphia, as well as putting their weight behind the governor of California and mayor of San Francisco.  Organized officially as the American Party, they then tried to expand their movement, and soon boasted more than a million members nationwide.

There was a particular fear that immigrants and Catholics were rigging the elections, and local elections in major cities from 1855-1858 were marred by violence, arson, and rioting.  Indeed, Know-Nothings suspected that Catholics were part of a vast conspiracy to make America bend its knee to the Pope; the party platform for the election of 1856 included a call for "War to the hilt, on political Romanism" and "Hostility to all Papal influences, when brought to bear against the Republic."

In Massachusetts, where Know-Nothings took over, they did some crazy things (establish a Nunnery Commission to report on the actions of the villainous nuns of the state) and some good things (build infrastructure and public schools), and -- thankfully -- were unable to actually enact most of their more vile desires due to their own incompetence.

Hopefully, at this point the parallels are painfully clear.  American society is more civil and won't forbear explicit racism, of course, and the two-party duopoly is too firmly established for this nativism to supplant an existing institution, but there can be no doubt that Trumpists are the spiritual successors of the Know-Nothings.

Neither movement sprang from nowhere.  In 1835, when the Whigs were still a relatively healthy party, people like Samuel Morse were writing The Imminent Dangers to the Free Institutions of the United States, in which he raved about the conspiracy of Jesuit priests and Irish immigrants:
O there is no danger to the Democracy; for those most devoted to the Pope, the Roman Catholics, especially the Irish Catholics, are all on the side of Democracy. Yes; to be sure they are on the side of Democracy. They are just where I should look for them. Judas Iscariot joined with the true disciples. ...  That Jesuits are at work upon the passions of the American community, managing in various ways to gain control, must be evident to all. They who have learned from history the general mode of proceeding of this crafty set of men, could easily infer that they were here, even were it not otherwise confirmed by unquestionable evidence in their correspondence with their foreign masters in Austria. There are some, perhaps, who are under the impression that the order of Jesuits is a purely religious Society for the dissemination of the Roman Catholic religion; and therefore comes within the protection of our laws, and must be tolerated. There cannot be a greater mistake. It was from the beginning a political organization, an absolute Monarchy masked by religion.
In the same way, Trumpism required the constant drumbeat of twenty years of an alternative media, which challenged every arbiter of truth but itself and which whipped itself into a factless fury of fear at the dangerous hordes of Mexican immigrants and encroaching Sharia law.  Former conservative radio star Charlie Sykes wrote recently in The New York Times about the process, relating:
For years, as a conservative radio talk show host, I played a role in that conditioning by hammering the mainstream media for its bias and double standards. But the price turned out to be far higher than I imagined. The cumulative effect of the attacks was to  delegitimize those outlets and essentially destroy much of the right’s immunity to false information. We thought we were creating a savvier, more skeptical audience. Instead, we opened the door for President Trump, who found an audience that could be easily misled.
So here we are.  One party has been taken over by a brash conspiracy theorist who warns darkly about immigration and who has made himself the enemy of a whole religion, and whose base is found almost exclusively among the ranks of whites who believe their way of life is under threat.  Not all of those who voted for President Trump represent these modern Know-Nothings, of course... even in the primary race among only Republican voters, Trump never achieved a majority.  The new Know-Nothings are his most vocal supporters, and the angriest, and nastiest, but they are no more than a fraction of America.

In the end, that was the downfall of the Know-Nothings, too.  In most of the country, there wasn't enough anger or paranoia to sustain them; where they did seize control, they were too incompetent to stay in power  and couldn't endure the relentless hammering of the opposition.  Their candidate in 1856, former president Millard Fillmore, won one state (Maryland), and they dissolved as their supporters in the South returned to the Democrats and those in the North joined the nascent Republicans.

Ray Billington wrote a fitting epitaph for the Know-Nothings in 1959:
The defeat of Know-Nothingism was also a setback for intolerance. When put to the test, the bigots who had fomented against Romanists and aliens for a generation had nothing to offer save the timeworn clichés of bigotry and a political ineptitude that revealed their own inferiority.
What can we learn from this?  Bearing in mind that metaphor isn't argument, I think this story is still instructive.

The Know-Nothings declined for three reasons:

  • They were wrong.  There was no secret Popish plot, the Jesuits weren't rigging elections, and the world just wasn't what they said.
  • They were never representative.  Not enough Americans fell for the scam or the fear, in the end, and so no sustaining popular movement could be built.
  • They faced ceaseless opposition.  Many Whigs and Democrats openly loathed them, and few prominent leaders were supportive (even if they wouldn't speak out).

It is my firm belief that Trump and his followers are wrong about the world and that they are a small fraction of America.  If we are right, and I hope we are, then we need only one thing more for victory.

We need to resist.  We need ceaseless, courageous, and passionate opposition.

We need to call our representatives, meet them in town halls, fax and email and call them out on the street.  We need to hold them accountable and hold Trump accountable.  We need to fill every minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run.

Resist, folks.  We've done it before.  We can do it again.

Do: attend your representative's next town hall meeting or office hours.

Want to do something?  Make yourself heard by attending your representative's next town hall meeting or office hours.  All representatives hold them from time to time.

You can visit this handy spreadsheet to see when your representative is holding their next meeting and where it will be.  It's ordered by representative name, so just scroll down to find yours.  And if you don't already know who your representative is, you can find the answer at this link.

And if your representative isn't holding one... why not?  Call and ask why they're not consulting their constituents next week, when Congress is out of session the entire week.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Do: call about DeVos. The vote is Monday. Call today, tomorrow, and Monday.

The vote to confirm Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education appears to be 50-50, with Vice President Pence to break the tie.  Two Republicans have said they will vote against her: Murkowski and Collins.  We have today, tomorrow, and Monday morning to convince one more Republican senator to flip.

This page has the list of everyone's contact information in the Senate.  You can skip Democrats, Murkwoski, Collins, and McConnell.  Everyone else is fair game.  We're looking for a heroic move here... someone to buck their party and block a dangerously unqualified and ignorant nominee.  I'd suggest focusing on Sens. Toomey (202 224-4254), Flake (202 224-4521), Heller (202 224-6244), Portman (202 224-3353), Graham (202 224-5972), and McCain (202 224-2235).  But that's just my best guess.  Call them, then call anyone else you have time to call.

It's going to be hard to get through to people.  The call volume appears to be the highest the Capitol has ever experienced (they put in additional lines only a few years ago, but story after story confirms that every office's lines are still jammed).  And we might not make it, since Murkowski and Collins waited to flip until they were pretty sure that there were 50 other votes.

But we've got to try.  Try today.  Try tomorrow.  Try Monday.

Listen: checks and balances exist, and this is how democracy works.

Originally, America was governed by the Articles of Confederation.  This was our country's first form of government, and it was lousy.  Nothing could get done and everything ground to a halt.  And so, after only five years, all of the states sent delegates to work up something new: the Constitution.  But once it was designed, they still needed to convince people to abandon the Articles of Confederation and adopt the new governing document.  That's the origin of The Federalist Papers, a long series of arguments submitted to the public under a pseudonym by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (but mostly Hamilton).

It may provide some comfort, then, to look back on their arguments and notice that they specifically and deliberately designed a constitution that would protect against the over-reach of a temporary majority or the abuses of a demagogue.  Even in those times, they wrote, when the legislative branch is dominated by one passionate faction and the executive branch is led by someone with neither restraint nor wit, there is a remedy: the judicial branch.

In Federalist 78, Hamilton writes:
This independence of the judges is equally requisite to guard the Constitution and the rights of individuals from the effects of those ill humors, which the arts of designing men, or the influence of particular conjunctures, sometimes disseminate among the people themselves, and which, though they speedily give place to better information, and more deliberate reflection, have a tendency, in the meantime, to occasion dangerous innovations in the government, and serious oppressions of the minor party in the community.
The judicial branch balances against the others and restrains them from violating fundamental principles, checking their power to keep it within limits.  And while they check the judiciary, as well, the process by which they do so is slow and uncertain.  For example, the president appoints justices to the Supreme Court, but as many factions have discovered over the course of our history, it's very difficult to reliably appoint someone who will always agree with you.  Justice Stevens was supposed to be a conservative when Ford appointed him, but he ended up as one of the most liberal justices in recent years.  And Justice Roberts was supposed to be the swing vote to strike down Obamacare, but instead he wrote the opinion upholding it.

All of this is to say: today's circumstances are what our democracy was designed to look like.  The rise of a demagogue who would try to overstep his authority was anticipated, and provision was made.  The corruption of a powerful faction that would try to consolidate its power was aforethought, and preparations were laid.

While this era's troubling events may rise up before us, strange and new and shocking, rest assured: we are in charted waters.  Concentrate on adjusting the ship's course, not fretting over the seas.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Listen: today was a good day.

When I say that it was a good day, I don't mean that it was perfect.  Bad things happened.

Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos was voted out of committee and is headed for a floor vote, and it's going to take all of our effort to flip one last Republican senator (there will be a Do post tomorrow on that).  Trump also issued an order to rescind the fiduciary rule, the regulation on financial planners that requires them to invest in their client's best interest, rather than their own.  It's an almost cartoonishly evil, indefensible thing to do.  And they're getting set to tear down Dodd-Frank, which is an insane thing to do to a law that's barely adequate as it stands.  And of course, there's the continuing fall-out from the Muslim ban... tens of thousands of legal migrants lost their visas for no reason but brute prejudice.

But let's be frank: we lost the election, the GOP controls Congress and the executive, and it's the second week of a new presidency.  We should be losing.  A lot.  Far more than this, actually.

And so we should appreciate that today was a good day.

I'm not talking about the little things.  Yes, it's good that the White House's continuing P.R. nightmare has stretched on for another news cycle, as Kellyanne Conway made an embarrassing error and fabricated a non-existent "Bowling Green Massacre" to justify the Muslim ban.  Yes, it's good that the last jobs report of Obama's presidency was yet another good-not-great one,

No, today was a good day because one of the numerous federal cases proceeding against the monstrously mishandled Muslim ban has resulted in a restraining order, nationwide.  And I'm not sure people appreciate the consequences of that.

It was a thumb in the eye of the Trump administration, and yet another sign of the incompetence with which the Muslim ban was enacted.  As the blog Lawfare noted, the way the ban was implemented provided a target-rich environment, since it's so difficult to defend in court.  It makes them look bad. But more than that.

It's more than that... It's this:

All key sections of the order (3c, 5a, 5b, 5c, and 5e) are enjoined -- they won't be enforced.  This says a lot about the chances that the ban is going to have once litigation is finished, at least in this particular court (in Seattle).  Judge Robart, the Bush 43-appointee hearing the case there, is indicating that the case against the law has a very substantial chance of success.  The whole thing might well be struck down.  But more than that.

The visa ban is halted and can't be enforced (3c).  The refugee ban is halted and can't be enforced (5a-e).  Listen to me now as I tell you what this order means, and listen good:

Thanks to the ruling today, there are some people in the world who were going to die, and now they will live.

We saved lives tonight... You and me and everyone who donated.

The way this order shakes out isn't entirely clear.  It was oral, issued from the bench, and the written version hasn't even been released.  But unless I am badly mistaken or the administration defies the rule of law... some lives were saved tonight.

Today was a good day.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Do: ignore the Supreme Court nominee and focus on the Muslim ban.

Call your senators and tell them you're outraged --  but over the Muslim ban, not the new Supreme Court nominee.  Tell them you want them to fight tooth and nail but over something they can win.

We all know the story of the Supreme Court vacancy.  It opened up almost a year ago, but the Senate Republicans -- in charge of confirming Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland -- refused to hold hearings or a vote.  Their arguments were embarrassingly weak, fig leaves to cover the extremity of this decision; "Joe Biden once suggested the same thing in a hypothetical argument about a vacancy that didn't actually exist," etc.

So let's start by saying that the behavior of Leader Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans has been a grotesque subversion of the Constitution, institutional norms, and general fairness.  In service to the McConnell Rule ("Norms and traditions don't matter unless they help us") and an untempered pursuit of power, they have damaged the very things they claim to reverence.

But it's done.  Sorry, but that fight was lost with Trump's victory.  Voters just plain didn't care about the stolen seat -- at no point during the presidential race was it ever a remotely important issue to most Americans.

Now Trump has nominated a justice, and many people want Senate Democrats to go with the McConnell Rule, too, by filibustering the nominee, Neil Gorsuch.  It may once have been normal for senators to defer to the president's choice unless that choice was radical, but norms don't matter, these people say.  Maximum obstruction is the way to go, they argue, since the election proved that voters won't care.  It's true that the Republicans could then simply eliminate the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees (as Harry Reid did for lower court judges) but since the filibuster is just another norm, who cares?

I have to admit that there is some merit to this argument.  At the least, Democrats could slow the whole thing down.  But a lot of people aren't sure, and opinion is all over the place.  The Washington Post's Aaron Blake wrote a column about how Democrats might overplay their hand, but he's so unpersuasive he basically undermines his own point.  New York's Jonathan Chait argues that the SCOTUS filibuster is already gone, and that accordingly it just comes down to who tears off the band-aid.  Gorsuch is going on the Supreme Court, he says, but it can either happen the easy way or the hard way... and he argues the hard way.  He doesn't spend much time talking about the gains that Democrats can expect from pushing such a hard fight, but basically it's that it would make the Democratic base very happy.

But that's not the best choice.  We shouldn't be fighting the last fight, we should be fighting the current one.

First, there's a matter of tactics.  These days, it's pretty common to hear people say that Trump's latest outrage is just a distraction from whatever it is the speaker thinks is the most important thing.  As I noted yesterday, I think Trump is pretty incompetent and not actually capable of that level of sophistication.  He says and does a continual stream of unjust and dumb things because he is continuously unjust and dumb, not because he's employing a magical smokescreen.  But if anything was a distraction, it's the SCOTUS pick.  The Muslim ban has overwhelmed the administration with cycle after cycle of terrible headlines, and any idiot could see they needed to change the narrative.  And they weren't even subtle about it: they moved up the planned announcement date; they did it on live television during prime-time; they deliberately said that the two "finalists" were both in town to create false drama.  It was just one rose short of a The Bachelorette finale.

So we should be focusing on the things that matter and the things we can change.  Democrats can and should slow this down as much as possible -- the more time spent on this, the longer it will take for them to repeal the ACA -- but a filibuster will only achieve the loss of the filibuster, perhaps for all votes.

The smart thing to do is for the Democrats to vote for cloture (that is, not filibuster) in exchange for a slower confirmation process.  It would be trading nothing for something we want: more delay.  Every minute spent on Gorsuch is a minute that the Senate is not enacting Trump's terrible agenda.  Or trade it for a vote on the Muslim ban.  Filibustering achieves nothing, so we shouldn't be upset if our senators don't do it.

The other reason why it's smart for the Democrats in the Senate to just drag their feet, rather than filibustering, is that Gorsuch united the Republicans.  They're delighted with the pick -- groups like evangelical Christians made a deal with the devil to get this nominee, and dwelling on it will only make them like Trump more, by extension.  Gorsuch can't even be fairly called radical or outrageous... he's a mainstream conservative, brilliant, and incredibly well-credentialed judge.

In case it needs to be put more clearly: every day that a filibuster is in the headlines is a day that dead Syrian children are forgotten.  Call your senators and tell them that.