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Archive for January, 2005

How to stop being an opposition party

[ 0 ] January 31, 2005 |

The Bonassus, Daniel Geffen, actually turns to the research….

a) Adjust your policies to be more like the other (more successful) party’s?
b) Stick to your guns and maintain the same policy positions (or move farther away from the other party)?
c) Innovate: find a new set of policies to champion?

….So what does history tell us? The most rigorous attempt to answer this question that I’m aware of is a 2001 paper by Kenneth Finegold and Elaine Swift (you can find it here if you have access to the British Journal of Political Science). Their result? Despite the impressive arguments mustered by proponents of each option, none of the strategies stands out as superior, at least in the US presidential context. Each strategy has produced a statistically similar won-lost record. A more sophisticated test (examining the size of deviations from predicted vote totals) returns the same result: even when controlling for the non-policy factors (national economic performance, personal popularity of the incumbent) that typically go into vote-prediction formulas, the out-party hasn’t done any better or worse when it has chosen to move toward, away, or in a different direction from its incumbent opponent.

Daniel concludes, correctly in my view, that the best lesson to be drawn here is that we ought to approach reasoning by historical analogy with a sizable grain of salt. Obviously, we ought to look for similar circumstances if we can find them to learn from; but we need to be a bit more aware that there is probably another historical case than works against our preferred case, we just don’t know anything about it. Furthermore, those who advocate strongly for their preferred choice on the list need to operate with a bit more humility. I’ve seen far too much exasperation-heavy “we’re being the grown-ups here” posturing from advocates of option A, and a bit too much “they’re the old losers who never do anything right, they don’t understand the ‘netroots’ who changed political reality forever” posturing from some of their opponents. Frankly, I have no idea whether a, b, or c is most likely to succeed at this point. And, in all likelihood, neither do you.

Update: To be clear, I’m not saying we never have any idea what to do, ever. Only that it’s a mistake to think one of these three approaches ought to be our default mechanism. Scott has done a fine job of showing why option (a) isn’t particularly wise as a course on reproductive rights. We (and many others) have argued that option (a) isn’t a bad idea on gun control. There are good, specific reasons for each of these positions. Other issues are harder to figure out. But neither a, b, or c should be assumed to have some sort of unique political wisdom behind them in a general, abstract sense.


Mister McBobo

[ 0 ] January 31, 2005 |

Classic Tomorrow.

Wingnut Translator

[ 0 ] January 30, 2005 |

One of the difficulties any rational person has with Gregg Easterbrook’s review of Jared Diamond is that he is simply speaking a different, wingnuttier dialect of the English language. Once you understand the idiosyncratic definitions of certain key terms, things become much clearer. You’ll also find these new definitions are used quite commonly.

post·mod·ern (adj.) Any claim, irrespective of its theoretical, methodological, or empirical underpinnings, that contradicts reactionary received wisdom. Eg., “The skepticism of scientists toward ‘intelligent design’ creationism is quintessentially postmodern.” “The claim that serious accusations of wrongdoing require evidence is quintessentially postmodern.” “The claim that George Bush cannot be given credit for the policies of previous presidents that Bush vociferously opposes is quintessentially postmodern.”

pol·it·call·ly cor·rect (adj.) (archaic) A label applied to another’s contention in order to pre-empt an argument when your counter-argument is utterly indefensible on the merits. Eg., “The argument that civilizational advances result from anything but the innate ingenuity of men and the individualistic culture that will develop in another century or two is politically correct.” “The argument that Jews are not collectively responsible for any movie that one doesn’t like is politically correct.” “The claim that women should be assumed not to consent to sexual intercourse merely because they say so is politically correct.”

Hopefully that will help you read similar texts in the future!

I Can’t! It’s a Geo-Green!

[ 0 ] January 30, 2005 |

I know it’s difficult to believe, but the Eatserhackery referenced below is conceivably only the second-stupidest thing featured in today’s New York Times.

I’m still alive and Easterbrook is still a moron

[ 0 ] January 30, 2005 |

Rob and Scott have been doing just fine without me during my unplanned blogging sabbatical, to the extent that the vast majority of you probably hadn’t noticed. At any rate, I’m still here. My lack of blogging can be pretty directly linked to some serious (and seriously overdue) dissertating. If I thought our readers might be interested in my views on the underappreciated and misunderstood implications of understanding democracy as an essentially contested concept, the advantages of Ian Shapiro’s conception of democracy over Phillip Pettit’s and David Held’s conceptions, or the reasons why David Miller’s recent work on responsibility undermines some of his critiques of cosmopolitanism, well, I’d be delusional. This relative lack of blogging will probably continue into the near future, although I do hope to post a bit more regularly than I have over the last month.

I was awoken from my blogging slumber this morning by Gregg Easterbrook. I know he used to have a reputation as a smart and occasionally insightful writer and policy analyst, and I’m not saying that’s wrong, but it clearly gives us no insight into the shell of a thinker the reader has been presented with for at least ten years. A lot of clearly foolish ideas have been put into motion and eventually into print at theNew York Times in recent years. One of them was clearly (and predictably) the decision to hire Gregg Easterbrook to write something. The folly of this decision was compounded by the subject matter of what he was, presumably, paid to write about: A review of the new book by the successful and popular science writer Jared Diamond. I’m not going to track down all the links here, but some of the things that rather obviously disqualify Easterbrook from being paid to write about science are: pointing out that it’s crazy that scientists won’t take dishonest creationism intelligent design seriously, but hold conferences on wacky ideas like super-string theory, writing op-eds presuming to fisk peer-reviewed scientific articles he clearly doesn’t understand, and generally picking and choosing which science to take seriously based on how well it fits with his carefully cultivated status as the contrarian of environmentalism (hey, when you’re wrong as often as Easterbrook, going the contrarian route is a good career move. Just ask Chris Hitchens!). Here’s a good set of general and specific rebukes of Easterbrook on environmentalism written by people who probably had better things to do with their time.

At any rate, Brad Delong and Henry Farrell have beat me to the punch on the most obvious problem with Easterbrook’s “review.” I would also note that the review is almost entirely devoted to Easterbrook’s gross misreading of Diamond’s previous book, Guns, Germs and Steel. I don’t presume to take a stand in the debates about the merits of that book here, but I would think all sensible defenders and critics of the book can find common ground on the idiocy Easterbrook’s understanding of the book as a “quintessentially postmodern” work, the success of which can be entirely attributed to its “high P.C. Quotient” (Yes, it’s 2005 and Easterbrook is still babbling on about political correctness. That pretty much says it all.)

So let this be a lesson to all you editors out there. When you hire Gregg Easterbrook to write a review, he’s liable to a)review the wrong book, and b)thoroughly and comically misunderstand the book he chose, for some reason, to review. Now–and think carefully about your answer to this question–is this what you’re looking for in a reviewer? Easterbrook is like a student assigned to write a paper comparing Hobbes and Locke who submits an essay explaining why Burke thought the French Revolution was neat. Come to think of it, my students never miss the point that badly. If the editors of any prominent book reviews would like me to recommend some of them, I’d be happy to pass along a few names.

To be fair, Easterbrook does seem to be mastering the skill of avoiding gratuitous anti-semitism….

Canadians of the World, Unite and Take Over

[ 0 ] January 30, 2005 |

To be candid, lacking expertise on matters of either fashion or tact as I do I’m basically indifferent about Dick Cheney’s Eddie Bauer Auschwitz outfit. Nonetheless, Lindsay Beyerstein‘s take on the matter is clearly superior to all contenders, because it uses the word “toque.” Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go finish my Kraft Dinner…

Bobo in Hell

[ 0 ] January 30, 2005 |

This is on Book TV right now. Bobo, the Derb, and Christina Hoff Summers discuss I Am Gene Simmons. And it’s as bad as it sounds. Bobo, of course, uses this to recycle anecdotes about college students from On Remainder Tables and complain about how colleges are no longer trying to “build character,” which seems to mean “preventing them from having sex.” Summers starts off rationally, mocking Wolfe (and, by extension, Bobo) for generalized from self-selected anecdotes, but then starts (I’m serious) going on about how every woman in college is indoctrinated by Judith Butler–someone even published a Judith Butler reader!–and several years ago she won a bad sentence writing contzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. And now the Derb is, surprisingly, talking about how it’s all about homosexuality. This thing really cries out for s.z.

I would like to think that there are better literary events C-SPAN could televise instead of one that uses a terrible novel as a pretext to invite reactionaries to yammer on about the same stale hobbyhorses they would beat into the ground irrespective of the book being discussed…

Fascinating. . .

[ 0 ] January 29, 2005 |

In real life, I am a glacially slow first baseman/corner outfielder with no power whose sole offensive contribution comes from a willingness to take a tremendous number of walks.

My namesake played eighty-four major league games, all at first base and the corner outfield positions. His range factor in the outfield was a stunning .64 (that’s really, really low). In 123 at bats, he had only six extra-base hits. However, he managed to draw thirty walks during his brief major league career.


General Good Wishes for Iraq

[ 0 ] January 29, 2005 |

Here’s to hoping that lots of Iraqis decide to vote, that they are allowed to vote for candidates they want, that they don’t get shot or blown up at the polls, and that the election leads to an independent, democratic Iraq and a peaceful, timely US withdrawal.

I mean this in all sincerity; it’s a shame that George Bush and his cronies have made this hope sound like a bad joke.

Giving McCarthyism A Bad Name

[ 0 ] January 29, 2005 |

Max Sawicky and Oliver Willis find hate-filled reactionary academic Glenn Reynolds making an argument that would have to accrue several levels of plausibility and empirical support to rise to the level of being specious. (No link to InstaCohn.) You particularly have to like the claim that “the right has done a better job of muzzling and marginalizing its idiots.” As we have noted, Matt Welch has killed this argument, cremated it, and spread the ashes all over the country. Right, some college professor can be seen as fully representing “the Left,” but the third and fifth most powerful people in the Senate (among countless others in the Administration and Congress) have been effectively marginalized. To call Reynolds a wanker is a gross understatement; the man has so much hand it’s coming out of his gloves.

Unfortunately, the staggering illogic and intellectual dishonesty of this post has had financial consequences for Reynolds. The New York branch office of Lawyers, Guns & Money has received the following press release from Fox News:

Contrary to some published reports, Glenn Reynolds, author of the popular Web Log “” will not be joining our newest show, Feith and Friends. “Seriously, this guy gives McCarthyite demagoguery a bad name,” said Fox News host Sean Hannity, who strongly opposed offering a job to Reynolds. “On our show, at least .1% of the audience has to know who someone is before they can be made to speak for something called ‘The Left.’ We’re trying to attract a sophisticated class of wingnut here.” After hearing that Feith and Friends hosts may be required to substitute for Hannity, co-host Alan Colmes agreed. “Remember that scene in Raging Bull where Jake is trying to throw the fight, but he gives the guy a little tap and he starts falling all over the ring? Having Reynolds co-host would be like that. He’s a bum. What would you want me to do? Reynolds’s arguments are so transparently idiotic that any response would demolish them. The show only works if I at least have to pretend to disagree with my co-host.” Special Report host Brit Hume worried about the tone that Reynolds would bring to the network. “I was reading his blog recently, and he started this nice post about how anyone to the left of Dick Cheney is an America-hating Stalinist, but then he starts sneering about what this guy looks like. Say what you will about our ideological outlook, but here at Fox News we like to talk about politics. If you look at his blog, you’ll quickly see that Reynolds has little interest in or knowledge about most substantive political issues.” Fox’s newest host, Doug Feith, shared similar concerns. “Seriously, that wanker wouldn’t know Leo Strauss from Johann Strauss. I frankly don’t see what the size of Michael Moore’s ass has to do with anything. He could make us look even fucking stupider than we already are.” Fox News President Roger Ailes remains hopeful that Michael Savage will join the show instead, although Ailes is concerned that Savage has been “muzzled” by having been given a national talk show and expensively promoted books.

A real shame. I think he’s got a good shot of taking over from Dennis Miller when his show gets cancelled, though…

…in light of Reynolds’s contention that Barbara Boxer’s praise of Kos represents an endorsement of everything he had ever previously said, remember this. (Needless to say, Reynolds’s “blame the victim” theory of genocide is always relevant…)

Mission Aborted

[ 0 ] January 28, 2005 |

Yes, I’m afraid we have another article about how the Democrats who need to admit that women who get abortions are immoral and tragic victims, this time by Andrew Sullivan (subscribers only) who uses praise of Hillary Clinton (while distorting what she was saying) to recite some tired, arrogant, and dishonest arguments.

For too long, supporters of abortion rights have foolishly and callously trivialized the moral dimensions of the act of ending human life in the womb. They have insisted that no profound moral cost is involved. They remain seemingly impassive in the face of the horrors of partial-birth abortion. They talk in the abstract language of “reproductive rights” and of a “war against women.” To acknowledge that human life is valuable from conception to death has been, at times, beyond their capacity. They have seemed blind to the fact that, as Naomi Wolf once alluded in this magazine, mothers and children have souls and that, in every abortion, one soul is destroyed and another wounded. And they seem far too dismissive of the fact that the concerns of many pro-life Americans are not rooted in intolerance but in the oldest liberal traditions of the protection of the weak.

We have here, again, the highly idiosyncratic notion of compromise that generally characterizes these lectures: pro-choicers need to build bridges and work with others by admitting that Andrew Sullivan is entirely right about the abortion issue and adopting his position in toto. Look, Andrew and every other “A. Sullivan” (and Naomi Wolf, for that matter, although it’s amusing how she’s mocked relentlessly when she advises Al Gore but praised as a moral sage in abortion debates) are entitled to their view that abortion is immoral but a tragic necessity. Perhaps Democratic politicians need to accommodate these people rhetorically (and, of course, they do.) But I am most certainly not going to say that fetuses have “souls,” or that women who get abortions are “wounding” their souls, or that abortion is always immoral, because I think that these beliefs are false and pernicious. I’m not going to back off; no matter how many times I hear this, “capitulation” and “finding common ground” are different issues. If you want the latter, we can talk. If the former, you can piss off. Oh, and I’ll admit that “some” pro-lifers are sincerely committed to protecting the weak as soon as Sullivan not only concedes that virtually every pro-life Republican politician (and Christian conservative leader) is steadfastly opposed to any policy that would reduce abortions except for criminalizing abortions for (poor) women, but also writes column after column demanding they admit their bad faith before they can be admitted into acceptable political discourse.

This is instructive:

One reason that John Kerry had such a hard time reaching people who have moral qualms about abortion was his record and rhetoric: a relentless defense of abortion rights–even for third-trimester unborn children–with no emphasis on the moral costs of such a callous disregard of human dignity. You cannot have such a record and then hope to convince others that you care about the sanctity of life.

The claim that Kerry used absolutist rhetoric on abortion is simply a bald-faced lie, as even the other A. Sullivan concedes. But this does reinforce a point Atrios recently brought up: people making the argument that the Democrats need to moderate their tone on abortion are completely unappeasable. No matter how wishy-wishy your rhetoric, you will always be accused of being an “extremist.” And it’s strictly a one-way ratchet, of course, as I’ll discuss later.

And then we get this shit again:

But even this is not enough for the Democrats to move the issue out of its current impasse. The party needs to end its near fatwa on pro-life politicians and spokespeople. Harry Reid and Tim Roemer are a start. The Democrats should learn from President Bush’s canny use of the issue. He is firmly pro-life. And yet he gave several pro-choice politicians key slots at the Republican convention. The new number-two at the Republican National Committee, Jo Ann Davidson, is pro-choice. When the Republicans are more obviously tolerant of dissent than Democrats, something has gone awry.

So the Democrats have a “near fatwa” (love the fudge word. This kind of rhetoric is important to learn. It’s what separates us from the animals. Except the weasel…) only marginally lessened by the fact thatthe most powerful Democratic politician in the country is pro-life. On the other hand, the Republicans get enormous credit for one RNC member and a few speeches on other topics given by blue-state Republicans with no national influence. And, of course, using Schwarzenegger as an example of Republican tolerance is Orwellian. He became governor via a recall, which was necessary because he had no chance whatsoever of winning a Republican primary. The intellectual dishonesty is just staggering.

But you can see why these arguments are popular. Let’s return to the beginning:

And, if [Hillary] and the Democrats can move the debate away from the question of abortion’s legality toward abortion’s immorality, then they stand a chance of winning that debate in the coming years.

I hate to break this to you, but the debate has been stable for decades, and the pro-choice position is winning. The Democratic position on abortion is the majority position. Conversely, the official position of the national Republican policy–a constitutional amendment that would force all states to ban abortion in all circumstances–is the position of a small minority of wingnut cranks. This is why Bush has to be “savvy” by using token unrepresentative politicians to try to hide his party’s position, and bring up centuries-old Supreme Court decisions he obviously doesn’t understand rather than be candid about his position. And this is why Sullivan’s arguments are as politically ingenious as they are disingenuous; they force Democrats to be defensive about positions that are highly popular, and do this by deftly changing the subject from the positions of that canny George Bush. This line of argument is a trap–don’t fall in.

Roe Was Right (Pt. III): The Question of Democratic Legitimacy

[ 0 ] January 27, 2005 |

In the previous two posts (1, 2) in defense of Roe v. Wade, I argued that 1)Roe is a logical application of a long-standing constitutional tradition, and 2)The arguments that would distinguish abortion from the other cases were not convincing. While existing doctrine does not compel judicial intervention in the way a restriction on political speech would, the doctrine certainly permits it. While I am not a believer in grand theories of constitutional interpretation (at least to the extent that they are supposed to end jurisprudential debates), I am enough of a formalist to believe that inferred rights place a very stringent burden of proof of the judiciary. In addition, I don’t find stare decisis arguments of the kind presented in Planned Parenthood v. Casey very compelling. I don’t think that overturning Roe would damage the legitimacy of the Supreme Court. To me, the key is the Carolene Products standard the Supreme Court has used to evaluate civil liberties claims for several decades: namely, the idea that the Supreme Court should be especially willing to protect groups excluded from the political process and correct cases where the democratic process malfunctions. From this perspective, the case for Roe becomes highly compelling:

  • The burdens inherent in carrying an unwanted pregnancy fall, of course, exclusively on women, and abortion cannot be adequately discussed outside of the context of historical gender discrimination. John Hart Ely, who used Carolene Products to develop a sophisticated theoretical defense of Warren Court jurisprudence, argued that Roe was different from cases such as Miranda and Brown because women, being an enfranchised majority, could protect their own interests in legislatures. Needless to say, this is quite clearly mistaken. Most abortion laws were enacted in a period when women were entirely disenfranchised. Even leaving that aside, even after the passage of the 19th Amendment women faced significant legal and social discrimination, and have been underrepresented in legislatures and face barriers of entry to other aspects of the political process as well. Abortion is, in fact, a classic Carolene Products case. The fact that women were not part of legislatures that passed abortion laws, allowed them to be enforced arbitrarily, and refused to amend them both lacked adequate female membership, and the inequities facing women more broadly, provides a compelling justification for Roe.


  • Gender inequities are not the only failures of democratic processes involved in abortion legislation. The inequitable enforcement of abortion laws creates perverse incentives to keep abortion laws on the books; the people most affected by abortion laws are those with the least political power. As a result, most state legislatures didn’t respond to clear shifts in public opinion. Abortion laws that were rigorously enforced would, at least, be entitled to a very strong presumption of constitutionality. But existing (and any politically viable future legislation) abortion legislation was not, and abortion laws that were rigorously enforced would almost certainly be quickly repealed.


  • Roe‘s critics portray the courts as imperial overloads thwarting democratic majorities, but this isn’t a good description of what’s going on with Roe. If anything, the court’s opinion was closer to public opinion than state legislatures in 1973, and Roe has consistently enjoyed strong public support. In addition, abortion law in legislatures was not an example of a strong social consensus being embedded by decision-makers, but instead is a history of delegation and deferral to other actors. The most common legislative reform tactic was to pass legislation that allowed medical professionals to justify performing or denying almost any abortion absent a grave emergency; in other words, delegating decision-making authority to protect doctors while not providing due process for women seeking abortions. Decisions of democratic legislatures are entitled to judicial deference, but the decisions of medical review boards rather less so.

These points create an extremely compelling defense of Roe. The court did not cut against a social consensus, and the political processes it intervened in were profoundly defective. These systemic problems do not warrant judicial intervention where run-of-the-mill political issues are involved, but reproductive rights have long been recognized as fundamental by the court. Again, this would not be sufficient if the law prevented judges from intervening, but it did not. The existing law clearly makes Roe plausible, and none of the typical arguments for judicial deference in the face of uncertainty apply. The abortion laws that existed in most states in 1973 were unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court was right to strike them down.

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