Responses to Ezra Klein’s Democratization Thesis

A prior post reviewed the recent Ezra Klein column (and related book) that argued for “reducing the polarization of American politics by democratization, including “proportional representation and campaign finance reform; . . .[making] voter registration automatic and. . . [giving] Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico the political representation they deserve.” https://dwkcommentaries.com/2020/02/14/u-s-needs-more-democratization/

Two respected political commentators–Norman J. Ornstein, a noted author and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Ross Douthat, a self-proclaimed conservative New York Times columnist–have discussed the Klein book, which was the basis for his column.

Norman Ornstein[1]

The Klein book cites research by political scientists showing that split ticket voting in presidential and congressional elections has virtually disappeared, that self-proclaimed independents now vote more predictably for one party over another and that such voters are now more motivated by their antipathy for the other party rather than affinity for their own. Related to all of this is the emergence of political mega-identities: “Republicans have become more cultlike and resistant to compromise or moderation” while “Democrats have an immune system of diversity and democracy.”

Ornstein also endorses Klein’s opinion that “baked into the political system devised by our framers is an increasing bias toward geography and away from people. As the country becomes more diverse, the representation and power in our politics will grow even less reflective of that dynamism. . . . At some point, the fundamental legitimacy of the system will be challenged.”

Therefore, in the book, Klein calls for eliminating the Electoral College and the Senate filibuster, allowing Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia to become states and taking steps to make the House of Representatives more reflective of the country. “Of course, even these measures , commendable though they may be, are a very heavy lift.”

Ross Douthat[2]

Douthat also takes on the more expansive statement of Ezra Klein’s opinions in his book, “Why We’re Polarized.”  [1]

This book, says Douthat, correctly debunks the theory that “the cure for division is just to educate people about the Right Answers to complicated policy disputes.”

Then Douthat counters Klein by relying on two other recent books, Christopher Caldwell’s “Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties” and Michael Lind’s “The New Class War: Saving Democracy From the Managerial Elite.” 

According to Douthat, Caldwell, another conservative author and New York Times contributing opinion writer,  sees the current polarization as due to the 1960’s reformers creating “through the Civil Rights Act, a structure of judicial and bureaucratic supervision and redress that gradually expanded into a rival constitutional system. This so-called  ‘Second Constitution’ is organized around the advancement of groups claiming equality, not the protection of citizens enjoying liberties. And so the claims these groups make must be privileged over and against both the normal legislative process and the freedoms of speech and religion and association that the original Constitution protects.”

Lind’s book, says Douthat, sees the current polarization as “the consolidation of economic power by a ‘managerial’ upper class'” and the resulting weakening of “any institution — from churches and families to union shops and local industries — that might grant real power to groups outside the gilded city, the Silicon Valley bubble, the Ivy League gate.” This phenomenon coupled with libertarianism of Regan and Thacher promoted “economic and social permissiveness . . . [and] a new class divide, between thriving meritocratic hubs and a declining and demoralized heartland, . . . [that] explains both the frequency of populist irruptions and their consistent futility.”

The above two books, however, in Douthat’s opinion, fail to acknowledge the importance of the “secularization and institutional-Christian decline” and resulting religious polarization as important trends contributing to polarization. which Douthat will address in a future column.

Note that Douthat does not address Klein’s point about American polarization being connected with the structure of American government giving greater weight to geographical units than to the number of people.

===========================

[1] Ornstein, Why America’s Political Divisions Will Only Get Worse, N.Y. Times Book Review (Feb. 9, 2020).

[2] Douthat, The Many Polarizations of America, N.Y. Times (Jan. 28, 2020).

 

U.S. Needs More Democratization

A New York Times article by Ezra Klein makes a strong argument for the United States needing more democratization in order to depolarize American politics.[1]

He starts this analysis with the assertion that the current polarization of U.S. politics is due to ideological changes: “the Democratic Party has moved left, and the Republican Party has moved right. But more fundamentally, those changes are compositional: Democrats have become more diverse, urban, young and secular, and the Republican Party has turned itself into a vehicle for whiter, older, more Christian and more rural voters.”

As a result, “Democrats can’t win running the kinds of campaigns and deploying the kinds of tactics that succeed for Republicans. . . . [Democrats] can move to the left — and they are — but they can’t abandon the center or, given the geography of American politics, the center-right, and still hold power. Democrats are modestly, but importantly, restrained by diversity and democracy. Republicans are not.”

In addition, the two parties’ voters differ in what sources of information they respect and listen to. Democrats trusted “22 of the 30 sources, including center-right outlets like The Wall Street Journal. Republicans trusted only seven of the 30 sources, with PBS, the BBC and The Wall Street Journal the only mainstream outlets with significant trust.” (The other trusted sources, for Republicans were, big surprise, Fox News, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Breitbart.)

Even though Democrats have won the recent total popular vote in elections for the U.S. presidency, the U.S. Senate and the U.S.House of Representatives, the Republicans currently control the presidency, the Senate and a majority of governorships. This is due to the structure of the U.S. government which “counts states and districts rather than people, and the G.O.P.’s more rural coalition has a geographic advantage that offsets its popular disadvantage.”

This Republican advantage, however, may be temporary.  Republicans “represent a shrinking constituency that holds vast political power. That has injected an almost manic urgency into their strategy. Behind the party’s tactical extremism lurks an apocalyptic sense of political stakes.”

Klein, therefore, concludes that “one of the few real hopes for depolarizing American politics is democratization,” including “proportional representation and campaign finance reform; . . .[making] voter registration automatic and. . . [giving] Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico the political representation they deserve.” This would compel the Republican Party to become a “more moderate and diverse party.” However, “precisely because the Republican Party sees deepening democracy as a threat to its future, it will use the power it holds to block any moves in that direction.”

Without such changes, Klein argues, the U.S. will face “ a legitimacy crisis that could threaten the very foundation of our political system. By 2040, 70 percent of Americans will live in the 15 largest states. That means 70 percent of America will be represented by only 30 senators, while the other 30 percent of America will be represented by 70 senators.”

Conclusion

Klein is right to call for the need for more democratization of the U.S. electoral system.

But while mentioning the U.S. system’s favoring land and districts over people, he does not attack directly those features that do just that: the Electoral College for electing the U.S. president, the allocation of two U.S. senators to each state regardless of population and state legislatures creating the boundaries for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Yes, this would require amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which may be next to impossible, but they should be mentioned.

Alex Wegman, a member of the New York Times editorial board, however, points out one facet of the  Electoral College: whether the individuals selected by the political parties are legally obligated to vote for that party’s successful candidate in the popular election when the 536 electors meet about six weeks after the popular election. Indeed, that very issue is now under consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court in two related cases from the federal appellate court in Colorado and a state court in Washington State. In the federal case, the court held that the founders clearly intended for electors to act independently and vote according to their consciences, not to the dictates of any political party. Once a state appoints an elector, the lower court said, its power over that elector ends. They cannot punish someone, or replace him or her, for voting a certain way. This issue, says Wegman, raises the more important question, why do we have to have the Electoral College?[2]

=============================

[1] Klein, Why Democrats Still Have to Appeal to the Center, N. Y. Times (Jan. 26, 2020). Klein is an American journalist, blogger, and political commentator who co-founded Vox, where he is currently editor-at-large. He was previously a blogger and columnist for The Washington Post and an associate editor of The American Prospect. He has served as a contributor to Bloomberg News and MSNBC. (Ezra Klein, Wikipedia.)

[2] Wegman, Why Do We Have an Electoral College, Again?, N.Y. Times (Jan. 26, 2020).

 

 

Difficulties in Diversifying Sections of the U.S.

This blog consistently has advocated the need for more immigrants in the U.S., especially in those states, mainly rural, with declining and aging populations.[1] Several  recent articles have emphasized difficulties in pursuing such a goal.

Northern New England[2]

Northern New England has an aging, declining and overwhelmingly white population in a “huge collection of very, very small towns.” These states—New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine—therefore, need new residents, including immigrants.

A major obstacle to attracting new residents is the presence of the huge presence of whites. The  reasons for this white population “stem from a variety of factors, including a lack of big urban areas, where jobs are more plentiful, [where] a wider range of housing is available and [where] cultural differences are a little more accepted than in smaller places.”

According to Peter Francese, a demographic analyst based in Exeter, N.H., “’Housing is at the core of why there aren’t more immigrants — there’s no place for them. An ethnic person who wants to come in with a family of four or five people is not going to find a home they can afford, and there’s almost no rental housing whatsoever.’ In addition, Northern New England has the nation’s highest concentration of second homes, making the housing market especially tight.”

In addition, he said, “much of any newer housing is only for people 55 or older. If developers built housing for younger people, they would likely have children, which means a need for schools, which means higher property taxes — anathema in a place like New Hampshire, which has no income tax.”

Some New Hampshire residents came up with the following ways the state could enhance its ability to draw people of different backgrounds: “a better understanding of licensing and skills that refugees bring with them so they could more easily work here; a system of rewarding businesses that hire a more diverse array of workers; a central location with a database, speakers’ bureau and training opportunities that could help companies understand what ‘diversity and inclusion’ means and how it could benefit them; and a focus on keeping workers as much as hiring them in the first place, since many leave after finding the state inhospitable.”

A possible solution to the woes of Northern New England is a new program, Welcome Home, which is sponsored by the International Rescue Committee, a nongovernmental organization that globally provides services to displaced people, and TripAdvisor and which has started in New York City and Northern California. This program seeks to provide refugees “an understanding of where they now live and help them integrate into their new communities.[3]

Some Whites’ Difficulties in Adjusting to Minority Status

There is a need for everyone to have understanding and empathy for some white persons who are  thrust into a situation in the U.S. where they are now in the minority.

This was the theme of a sensitive article about Heaven Engle, a 20-year old white woman who does not know the Spanish language while working in a rural chicken plant where virtually all of the other workers are Latina or Latino who do not speak English. During the work-day she often feels lonely, alienated and frustrated. She also feels threatened. This takes place in Fredericksburg, Pennsylvania, with a mainly white and conservative population of 1,500, isolated in Lebanon County, population 140,000, which is becoming more Hispanic.[4]

Racialized U.S. Politics[5]

This young white woman’s perspective ties in with a column about U.S. “racialized” politics by David Leonhardt, a former Washington bureau chief for the New York Times. He asserts, “American politics have become more racialized over the last decade. Over the long term, that trend will probably help the Democrats — the party of the country’s growing demographic groups. In the short term, though, it presents some real risks.” (Emphasis added.)

“Many white Americans,” he continues, “felt threatened by both . . .[Obama’s] election and the country’s increasing diversity.” Then “Trump ran the most race-obsessed campaign in decades . . . . [and] won the White House, thanks largely to a surge in white support across the upper Midwest, the Florida panhandle and elsewhere.”

Now “Trump and other top Republicans have made clear that they plan to continue their racialized strategy. They evidently think it’s their best chance to win elections. Cynical as their approach is, they may be right.” Why? “About 68 percent of the voting-age citizen population is white non-Hispanic. . . .  and “these whites vote more often than nonwhites.” Moreover, “when white people are frequently reminded of their racial identity, they tend to become more politically conservative.”

===================================

[1] E.g., More Immigrants Needed in U.S., dwkcommentaries.com (June 23, 2018).

[2] Seelye, New Hampshire, 94 Percent White, Asks: How Do You Diversify a Whole State? N.Y. Times (July 27, 2018).

[3] Vora, From Trip Advisor, a Program to Help Refugees Get to Know the U.S., N.Y. Times (July 31, 2018).

[4] McCoy, White, and in the minority, Wash. Post (July 30, 2018).

[5] Leonhardt, The  Politics of ‘White Threat,’ N.Y. Times (July 31, 2018); Klein, White threat in a browning America. Vox (July 30, 2018).

 

Over-Reaction to Eric Cantor’s Electoral Defeat?

The big U.S. political news this week was the defeat of Eric Cantor in Tuesday’s Republican primary in his U.S. House district in Virginia. Pundits and politicians say it means increased power for Tea Party/Republicans. The Republican Party will become more conservative and even less willing to negotiate with President Obama and congressional Democrats. Etc. Etc.

I have not read all of the newspaper articles about this election and have no desire to do so. But I was surprised by a column by New York Times’ columnist Charles Blow that emphasized the very small size of the vote in this election. Here are the key facts:

 

District population 760,000
Total votes in District: 2012 general election 381,000
Total votes in District: 2012 GOP primary   47,719
Total votes in District: 2014 GOP primary   65,008
Total votes in District: 2014 GOP primary– David Brat   36,110
Total votes in District: 2014 GOP primary– Eric Cantor   28,898

Ezra Klein of the Vox Conversations website believes that Cantor lost because of the low turnout in this week’s primary; Cantor failed to get his supporters to the polls.   Philip Bump in the Washington Post disagrees; he asserts that the GOP primary turnout in 2014 was larger than in 2012 and that the increased turnout was to vote against Cantor.

I am sure there are other interpretations of the result of this primary election, and I certainly am not able to wade in with my own opinion on the subject. Nor do I want to.

I merely point out that only 7,212 (36,110-28,898) more people voted for Brat than for Cantor. Are the many grandiose interpretations of this election merely over-reactions?