What we see of history ain’t the whole story

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Senator William Mahone was one of the most maligned political leaders in post-Civil War America. He was also one of the most capable. Compared to the Roman traitor Cataline (by Virginia Democrats), to Moses (by African American congressman John Mercer Langston), and to Napoleon (by himself), Mahone organized and led the most successful interracial political alliance in the post-emancipation South.

pub. 08/2017


Why Comey’s firing isn’t a constitutional crisis, but could become one

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But to call a presidential abuse of power a crisis of the constitutional system is like calling a bank robbery a crisis of the financial system. It’s not. There are ways to address it.

The problem comes when the relevant actors simply won’t perform their constitutional duties because of other considerations.

pub. 05/2017

The guy who “presided over the end of the Senate”

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Two years ago, when a Democrat was in the White House, McConnell said he would only abolish filibusters of Supreme Court justices if there were 67 votes for such a change. This week, he employed a maneuver to do it with 51 votes. It suited his momentary needs, but the damage will remain long after McConnell’s tombstone is engraved.

pub. 04/2017

Using filibusters strategically

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And so the strategic case, from a progressive perspective, against filibustering Gorsuch becomes easy: The probability that Roe v. Wade will survive the Trump years is unambiguously higher if Democrats don’t trigger the nuclear option here than if they do. So, too, for a number of other landmark decisions whose fate might hang in the balance if another vacancy arises.

pub. 04/2017


Everything that affects whether calling your Reps actually influences policy

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How seriously those messages are taken by Congress varies widely, chiefly because, when it comes to interacting with the public, there’s really no such thing as Congress per se. There are five hundred and thirty-five small businesses that together form the legislative arm of government, and their way of dealing with constituents can differ as much as their politics…

…For constituent activity to have more immediate effects on the actions of lawmakers, however, other conditions—most of them necessary, none of them necessarily sufficient—must apply. Broadly speaking, these include a huge quantity of people acting in concert, an unusually high pitch of passion, a specific countervailing vision, and consistent press coverage unfavorable to sitting politicians. Together, these can create the most potent condition of all: the possibility (or, at any rate, the fear) that the collective restiveness could jeopardize reëlection.

pub. 03/2017

Thoughts upon listening to my Representative defend Congress

I recently attended a town hall meeting with one of my representatives, a progressive who largely impressed me. They were preaching to the choir, a liberal audience grateful to be told they weren’t alone in today’s political landscape.

One of the few sticking points arose when audience members criticized Congress as a whole. Aside from pointing out a few policy misconceptions we had, our representative made what seemed to me an astute point: The overgeneralizing and emotionally laden statements we all make about Congress play right into the hands of the opposition.

Okay, so the current version of the Right wants to eliminate government, yes? It resists taxation, single-payer health care, corporate regulations, environmental regulations, firearm regulations, most any kind of regulations–well, other than those on women’s bodies and the violent kind a militarized police impose on minorities and immigrants. Politicians now run and win strictly on criticizing Congress and/or the entire concept of government, demonizing the first as a vague group of corrupt egotists (everyone except your own representatives, of course, people you know who are just doing their best by their constituents) and the second as an endless bureaucracy of faceless workers who don’t deserve their cushy jobs and are just getting in the way of your life (never mind your cousin the underfunded public school teacher or the fact that someone has to authorize your Medicare benefits). These politicians promise to come in as questionably defined “outsiders” who will shake things up, and they win. A lot.

The current president ran almost exclusively on this platform, all criticism of the establishment and few fully-formed policy suggestions. As we’ve seen, constituents hearing such rhetoric will in fact excuse a multitude of sins, even evidence that the politician is effectively part of the “establishment” (say, someone from a liberal city, born into wealth, with many powerful connections) or is himself benefiting from a lack of governmental oversight to the likely detriment of those same constituents (making personal business deals with foreign governments or using federal funds to pay rent on property he owns). Running against government is a winning strategy, as is continuing to dismantle it once you’re in power, because no one will be able to stop you from further using your money and connections to benefit yourself and others like you.

So what happens when those same politicians are involved in scandals? We don’t just say “ooh, that guy was the worst” or “giving people unregulated power is dangerous”, we say “Congress is awful.” Let me say that again: When someone who is actively trying to destroy our government to benefit themselves does something embarrassing or terrible, we imply that our system of government is irredeemably messed up. We grouse about it, looking for an “outsider” to come in and shake things up. And you know what? If those outsiders were all Bernie-style socialists looking for more regulation–thoughtful growth of the system–our loose words might be fine, but in this climate they further encourage voters to support the “government is bad” people. The people who want to eliminate regulations to their own advantage.

What’s the alternative? I’d say “A system in which [Politician] can do [that terrible thing] is messed up, and we need more regulation to prevent such acts in the future.” It’s not about censoring ourselves, it’s about being precise and accurate with our responses, saying exactly what we mean and not spewing our emotional frustration and stopping there. (And if you do believe in destroying the current system, then congratulations, it’s happening–but given the hands doing it, good luck getting a new system you like better.)

You don’t have to like that. You can say “it’s my right to make blanket condemnations of The Powers That Be” and “the establishment really is doing a shit job”. You wouldn’t be wrong, and no one’s stopping you. In fact, they’ll egg you on. And then they’ll vote for the next billionaire who promises to shake things up.

A visual guide to gerrymandering


Algorithms like this one prioritize compactness — that is, ensuring that voters are geographically close together. One of the telltale signs of gerrymandering is dramatically non-compact districts that squiggle and squirm out in all different directions — evidence of lawmakers trying to bring far-flung voters into a single district in order to achieve the partisan mix that best favors their party. Or, as Obama said: districts that let politicians pick their voters, rather than the other way around.

pub. 01/2016