Kevin Drum

Let Us Now Praise the Culture Wars

| Sun Feb. 14, 2016 4:08 PM EST

Stephen Prothero has a very odd piece in the LA Times today:

Two surprising conclusions emerge when America's culture wars — from Jefferson's heresies to same-sex marriage — are stacked up and weighed together. Conservatives typically start the battles, and liberals almost always win them.

Conservatism is often said to be rooted in a commitment to states' rights, free markets and limited government. But American conservatives have been for and against all these things at various times. The more consistent idea behind American conservatism is cultural: a form of life is passing away and it is worth fighting to revive and restore it. Driven by this narrative of loss and restoration, culture warriors struggle to resurrect the patriarchal family or Christian America or the homogeneous hometown.

Conservatives typically lose these battles because the causes they select are lost from the start. For example, culture warriors took on Catholics when the Catholic population was mainstreaming and gaining power. They took on same-sex marriage when many gays and lesbians were already out of the closet and accepted by their heterosexual relatives, co-workers and neighbors.

This is backward. Almost by definition—as Prothero acknowledges—conservatives want to keep existing cultural mores in place. It's liberals who want to change them. Same-sex marriage is a typical case: the United States spent 200 years unanimously believing that it was too absurd even to contemplate. It was gay rights activists, eventually supported by mainstream liberals, who pushed it into the public sphere. Conservatives didn't fight it before then because there was nothing to fight.

This dynamic isn't quite universal. The temperance movement, which was generally conservative though a little hard to classify, tried to change a custom that was millennia old. Much more commonly, though, it's liberals who fight for cultural change. In the postwar era, we're the ones who started the fights over civil rights; gender equality; prayer in school; abortion; gay rights; voting rights; health care as a basic right; and many others.

Prothero basically says that conservatives take on these movements too late, only after they've already started to gain critical mass. That's why they lose. This is true, but how else could it be? There's no point in waging a war against something that has no mainstream support and isn't even a twinkle in the public eye.

And of course, conservatives don't always lose. Liberals have tried to change the culture around guns, and so far we've failed miserably. Drug legalization has made only minuscule progress. And after 70 years, we're still fighting for truly universal health care.

Nonetheless, the general principle is simple: Liberals start culture fights, and conservatives respond if it looks like we're starting to succeed. Beyond being the simple truth, it's also something liberals should be proud of. There's a lot of enduring unfairness in society, and the main reason I count myself a liberal in the first place is because we're the ones who fight like hell to bring public attention to this and work to change it. Why would any liberal not gladly accept this?

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Republicans Invent New Supreme Court Tradition Out of Thin Air

| Sun Feb. 14, 2016 12:55 PM EST

Republicans are pretty unanimously refusing to consider confirming a Supreme Court nominee to replace Antonin Scalia before the election. That's hardly unexpected, but what cracks me up is their effort to make this sound like a principled stand. "It’s been over 80 years since a lame duck president has appointed a Supreme Court justice," Marco Rubio said last night, apparently not understanding what "lame duck" means. "We have 80 years of precedent of not confirming Supreme Court justices in an election year," Ted Cruz agreed, apparently not realizing that Anthony Kennedy was confirmed in 1988. No matter. "It’s been standard practice over the last 80 years to not confirm Supreme Court nominees during a presidential election year," thundered Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee, which will hold hearings on Obama's nominee.

This has quickly become a meme on the right. It's a deeply held American tradition not to confirm Supreme Court justices during an election year. Needless to say, this is ridiculous. Anthony Kennedy aside, the reason Supreme Court nominees haven't been confirmed during election years for the last few decades is just coincidental: none of them happened to have died or retired during an election year.1 Some tradition. Perhaps Scalia should be posthumously censured for having the gall to break this custom.

In any case, congratulations as usual to Mitch McConnell for not bothering with this self-righteous pretense. He says the Senate won't vote on a replacement for Scalia because, basically, they just don't want to. "The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice," he said yesterday, and that's that. Republicans have the power to delay in hopes of electing a Republican in November, and that's what they're going to do.

1Abe Fortas was rejected during the 1968 election year, but this had nothing to do with any kind of hallowed tradition. It was because Republicans and Dixiecrats were pissed off at the Warren Court, and preventing LBJ from elevating Fortas to chief justice was a way of showing it. They were able to use an ethics scandal to gin up opposition, and Fortas never even made it to a floor vote.

Liberals Are Heading Down the Path of Fox News. It's Time to Knock It Off.

| Sun Feb. 14, 2016 8:15 AM EST

Over the past few weeks I've written five posts making the following points:

  1. The acting Oscars are not really all that white.
  2. Flint is not a public health holocaust.
  3. The 1994 crime bill didn't create mass incarceration.
  4. Photo ID laws probably don't have massive turnout effects.
  5. Social welfare spending has gone up a lot over the past three decades, and welfare reform had very little impact on either this or the deep poverty rate.

I'm not really very excited about writing stuff like this. I generally prefer to use my emotional energy fighting conservatives and boosting liberal causes. On the other hand, facts and realism matter. I don't want to see my side adopt the habits that we mock so mercilessly in conservatives.

One of the things that bothered me in all five cases is that these points could all be made perfectly well with the truth. The non-acting Oscars really have shut out minorities almost completely. Lead poisoning of children really is a serious problem. The 1994 crime bill may not have been responsible for mass incarceration, but it had plenty of other problems—though they turned out have a pretty modest effect in the end. Photo ID laws do have modest but pervasive effects on minority voting, and in a 50-50 country this can make a big difference. And social welfare spending may have gone up a lot, but it still hasn't made much of a dent in poverty.

What to think of this? Maybe it's just coincidence that I've noticed a bunch of items like this recently. After all, everyone in the political arena, friends and foes alike, has long used hyperbole as a way of marshaling action. Human nature being what it is, people just won't pay much attention to measured and nuanced debate. You have to hit them over their heads to get their attention, and sometimes that means going overboard on the outrage if you want to make a difference in the world.

And in the end, what's worse? Generating a lightly misleading meme about acting Oscars being white—because actors are the only part of the film industry that most people know or care about—or doing nothing and gaining no attention for the fact that behind the camera Hollywood remains lily white? That's not always an easy question to answer.

Still, that's me talking my book. When this kind of thing starts to define a movement, you end up with Fox News and the tea party. We should be loath to go too far down that road. Being reality-based matters, even if it's not always entirely on your side.

Donald Trump Is Still Lying About Opposing the Iraq War

| Sat Feb. 13, 2016 11:16 PM EST

Donald Trump tonight:

I’m telling you, I’m the only one on the stage that said, “Do not go into Iraq. Do not attack Iraq.” Nobody else on this stage said that. And I said it loud and strong. And I was in the private sector. I wasn’t a politician, fortunately. But I said it. And I said it loud and clear.

He's lying. He didn't oppose the Iraq War before it started. Long ago he promised us 25 clippings proving that he spoke up against the war, but he's never coughed them up. That's because he can't. It's pathetic.

I didn't get to watch the debate tonight, so I don't have any further pearls to offer at the moment. But I'm sure I'll get around to it later tonight. It sounds like it was quite the edifying food fight.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia Has Died

| Sat Feb. 13, 2016 5:21 PM EST

Of "apparently natural" causes during the night. This is going to set up an unbelievable battle in the Senate. I wonder if Republicans will even make a pretense of seriously considering whoever President Obama nominates?

In the meantime, the court is split 4-4 between conservatives and liberals. So even if Republicans refuse to confirm a new justice, Obama's laws and executive orders are safe for another year in any case for which the opinion hasn't yet been finalized. You can't overturn an action on a 4-4 vote. This means that EPA's carbon rules are probably safe. Ditto for Obama's immigration executive order. Union shops in the public sector are probably safe. Abortion restrictions probably won't go anywhere. One-person-one-vote is probably safe.

Either way, this is now the most important issue in the presidential campaign. Appointing Supreme Court justices has always been one of the biggest reasons to care about who wins in November, but it's stayed mostly under the radar until now. No longer. Both sides will go ballistic over this, and the Supreme Court will suddenly seem like the most vital presidential power ever. If you thought things were getting nasty before this, just wait. You ain't seen nothing yet.

POSTSCRIPT: The last time a justice was confirmed during an election year was Anthony Kennedy in 1988. However, the stakes weren't as high. He was a conservative replacing a conservative, and didn't change the balance of the court much. Clarence Thomas was confirmed in late 1991, shortly before an election year, but we all know how that went. Among other things, he was replacing William Brennan, a very liberal justice, and his confirmation changed the balance of the court considerably.

Rick Hasen has more on the political implications of Scalia's vacant seat here. Ted Cruz has already announced that the Senate should not allow Obama to choose a successor, and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell agrees. Other Republicans are sure to follow. Fasten your seat belts.

Weekend Follow-Up #2: The 1994 Crime Bill and Mass Incarceration

| Sat Feb. 13, 2016 5:20 PM EST

The 1994 crime bill has come in for a lot of attention lately, and even Bill and Hillary Clinton have said they now regret some of its provisions. But which ones?

Generally speaking, liberals still applaud several of its biggest accomplishments: the assault weapon ban, the Violence Against Women Act, and the COPS program that funded additional police and better community training.

But Republicans exacted a price for this. In particular, they wanted an expansion of the death penalty and several provisions that stiffened sentencing of felons. As it turns out, though, Republicans didn't have a very good idea of what their own favorite policies would actually accomplish. Are you surprised? For example, here's the death penalty:

The crime bill created lots of new capital crimes, but its actual effect was nil. The death penalty was already losing support by 1994, and has been banned by an increasing number of states ever since. On the federal level, death sentences have always been a tiny fraction of the total (around four or five per year), and that didn't change after 1994.

So what about sentencing? The crime bill did have an effect here, but it was generally pretty modest. Here are a couple of charts from an unpublished review of the law seven years after it passed:

Why the small effect? In the case of 3-strikes, it simply didn't affect very many people. It did increase average time served by several months, but that's about it. And the much-loathed Truth-in-Sentencing provisions had even less effect. This is because more than half the states already had TIS requirements even before the 1994 bill passed, and not many passed new ones as a result of the law. It did push up the trend in incarceration and time served by a few tenths of a percentage point, but that had only a minuscule effect on overall incarceration rates.

The crime bill also included a few other witless measures, like reducing educational opportunities for inmates, and it unquestionably contributed to the crime hysteria that was prevalent at the time. Nonetheless, its most hated features never had a big effect.

Two years later Clinton also signed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which had some pretty objectionable changes to habeas corpus. This was arguably worse than anything in the 1994 bill, but it didn't have a substantial overall effect on incarceration rates.

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Things Donald Trump Will Do In His Second Year

| Sat Feb. 13, 2016 3:09 PM EST

A non-exhaustive list:

  • Make tomatoes great again.
  • Rename Denali to Mt. Trump.
  • Forbid stupid homeowner association rules.
  • Fix Windows once and for all.
  • Eliminate ex-president Obama's Secret Service detail.
  • Annex Cuba.
  • Build a permanent moon base as favor to Newt Gingrich. Also: lots of new zoos.
  • Send Atrios to a reeducation camp until his attitude improves.
  • Build a beautiful new Strategic Petroleum Reserve to handle all the oil he's going to take from ISIS.
  • Nationalize Twitter.
  • Present Sarah Palin with a Kennedy Center Honor for the Performing Arts.
  • Invent really good artificial sugar and fat substitutes.
  • Declare war on Denmark, just to piss off Bernie Sanders.

Weekend Follow-Up #1: Welfare Reform and Deep Poverty

| Sat Feb. 13, 2016 2:45 PM EST

I'd forgotten about this even though I wrote about it two years ago, but here's yet another chart about "deep poverty":

In this case, deep poverty is defined as households with income under 50 percent of the poverty line (about $10,000 for a family of three). The calculation is based on more accurate measures of poverty that have since been endorsed by the Census Bureau.

Now, this is a different measure of poverty than the one used by Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer that I noted yesterday. Their measure is both tighter (looking at even lower poverty rates) and looser (it counts households that are in extreme poverty even for short times). So it's not entirely an apples-to-apples comparison. Still, once you look at the historical numbers, it doesn't look like the 1996 welfare reform act slowed down the growth of welfare spending, nor did it have more than a very small effect on deep poverty.

None of this is especially meant to defend welfare reform. But 20 years later, it doesn't look like it really had quite the catastrophic impact that a lot of people were afraid of at the time.

I'm Now a Certified and Legally Responsible Non-Harasser of Women

| Sat Feb. 13, 2016 7:17 AM EST

Hey, look what I got. That's right: I've completed MoJo's required course on sexual harassment, no longer limited just to supervisors.

This doesn't have much practical value, since I work at home and have no one to harass even if I wanted to. Nonetheless, I was eager to take the course. You see, I'm immersed in opinions about PC culture and diversity and the idiocy of it all etc. etc. But I have no personal experience of it. If you're talking about schools, I graduated 40 years ago and I have no kids. If you're talking about Silicon Valley or Wall Street, I have no clue about either. If you're talking about workplace harassment, it never really came up at any of my previous jobs, and I haven't participated in an actual workplace since 2001.

So how was it? Pretty boring, really. If someone rejects your advances repeatedly, back off. Don't fire someone for rejecting you. Don't go into a woman's cubicle a dozen times of day to take a deep sniff. (Yes, that was a real example.) Don't spend three hours a day watching hardcore porn in your office. Don't go around telling black people they're "articulate" or Asian people that "of course" they're good at math. Don't lose your temper. Talk out your problems. Don't be an asshole.

Of course I, along with almost everyone who reads this blog, is an overeducated know-it-all who finds all this stuff trivially obvious. That's not true of everyone by a long way, and stuff like this is probably useful for them. This was also a pretty breezy course, not like the 8-hour sessions that are apparently required at some places. (I guess. How would I know?)

Bottom line: I didn't learn much, but I suppose plenty of people would. And it really wasn't very onerous. Mostly just common sense, not lefty indoctrination. So what's everyone complaining about?

Hooray! A Brand New Site For Creating Lots of Charts About Democracy.

| Sat Feb. 13, 2016 6:52 AM EST

The world is awash in charts these days. It's a great example of a simple proposition of economics: when something gets cheaper to produce, we produce a lot more of it. Just as computers turned a dozen daily pieces of mostly useful snail mail into hundreds of mostly useless emails, they've turned data laboriously collected by experts and then laboriously converted into clunky bars and lines by the art department into colorful masterpieces that can be created by pretty much everyone at the push of a button or a modest investment in learning Excel. Half the charts I produce for this blog come either directly from my good friends at the St. Louis Fed or indirectly by downloading their handy datasets into Excel.

There are lots of sites that produce charts these days, with new ones popping up all the time. Joshua Tucker points us today to V-Dem, which provides "15 million data points on democracy, including 39 democracy-related indices." The V-Dem website tells us that it is "a collaboration among more than 50 scholars worldwide which is co-hosted by the Department of Political Science at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden; and the Kellogg Institute at the University of Notre Dame, USA." So let's take a look.

V-Dem is pretty easy to use: pick one or more countries, one or more variables, and a time period. Click "Generate Graph" and you're off. So let's take a look at a few that I drew more or less at random. Here's #1:

That's peculiar, isn't it? We're used to thinking of the United States as the king of money in politics, but we're actually the steady blue line right in the middle. Italy apparently spends more than us and Germany spends a lot more. But in the 2000s, Germany plummeted down to middle and Sweden skyrocketed up to the middle. By 2013 we were all pretty much the same.

Of course, I have no idea what this is based on. In theory, I could download the codebook and eventually decipher the data sources, but you can probably guess what the odds of that are. So for now it remains a bit of a mystery. Here's #2:

This one is less surprising. It tells us that in the mid-1900s American political parties weren't very cohesive. Then around 1980 they started to become much more cohesive, looking more and more like parliamentary parties in Europe. Oddly, though, V-Dem thinks that Democrats and Republicans got a bit less cohesive around 2005. This contradicts the conventional wisdom enough that it might be worth someone's while to look into it. #SlatePitch, anyone? Here's #3:

Sweden and Germany are the winners here, unsurprisingly. But the US does pretty well too. We've gone from a distant fourth place in 1972 (among the seven countries shown) to a close tie for first. Of course, everyone else has gotten a lot better too. In fact, if you want to zoom way in for the details and take a glass-half-empty approach to things, we're actually in last place now. We were doing pretty well until 1993, but since then we've made almost no progress. Once again, if this is true it would be interesting to investigate. What happened in 1993 to suddenly blunt the rise of women's participation in politics?

So that's that. On the upside, there's a lot of data here and it's pretty easy to generate colorful charts out of it. It's interesting too. Three out of three random charts that I created instantly posed challenges to the received wisdom that might benefit from further study. On the downside, it's difficult to figure out the source of the indices or to download the data series themselves unless you're willing to download the entire dataset and load it into your statistical app of choice. That makes further study hard for non-experts. Nothing's perfect, I guess.