Democratic Presidential Candidates, Voters and Media

September 17, 2019

Commentators are scoring Democratic candidates by how “moderate” or “far left” they are. That’s nonsense. Let me count the ways.

Perhaps most important is that most voters don’t have a worked out platform. They are actually trying to judge sincerity. Some of us may prefer to choose policies. But most voters feel much more comfortable judging sincerity. So while commentators think Warren is too far to the left, the voters like her. What they are seeing is that she cares about them. That’s important. They want the winner to work for them and they figure that if the candidate cares, they’ll choose the right policies. That after all is the elected leaders’ job. Voters never aligned with Reagan’s policies but they liked and trusted him. That’s one of the reasons Republican appeals to what Reagan did seem hollow. They aren’t Reagan.

There’s another equally important reason. Presidential candidates’ policy preferences tell us what they will try to do, not what will happen. That’s partly out of any official’s control. Legislators, administrators, judges and changing circumstances have a large hand in that. Obama wanted a public option. I still do. But he couldn’t get it. What mattered is that he wanted medical coverage for all of us and he did his best. I appreciate that. And it is a big contrast with the absence of any Republican plan.

So it’s sensible for us as voters to ask whether this candidate will move the political system in a good direction, pulling and pushing despite opposition to get the best possible result. So a candidate like Warren is to the left of the Congress and thank heavens!

What I think the details really can show is whether the candidates are able to think things through. I do understand why she wants Medicare for all even though, if I were in her shoes, I wouldn’t push for it. Medicare for all guarantees a good plan for all of us because equality means that if it’s going to be good for us, it has to be good for them, too. And of course a single payer system is cheaper to administer. So I admire her dedication to getting good care for us all even if I can see disadvantages. But no candidate will get everything they want. So we’ll get a compromise between “moderate” ideas and caring motives. A president isn’t a monarch, and shouldn’t be.

One more reason: moderate and left are sloppy terms. If I like one leftish idea that doesn’t make me a leftist. If sometimes I support competition like Republicans do, that doesn’t make me conservative. Voters might disagree about one thing or another but like and trust a candidate. Or they might mislabel a candidate’s whole platform based on one idea and jump away. The media are being sloppy. There are ideas to the left of current American politics that Americans like and some they don’t. They do like medical care. They do want government to make sure that we all have access to important and essential services, whether or not the proposals started out on the left. Sloppy characterizations don’t help. Clarity and precision are much more useful.

 


Polarizing America

January 31, 2017

I’d like to give my spleen a break for a week and talk about some of the dynamics that are polarizing  America, that neither side can solve because the problem is structural. Law has contributed with crucial changes regarding political parties, the media, the draft and residential segregation (which Brown did not prevent). I’d love to hear good suggestions for countering the polarizing effects of those legal changes.[i]

Primaries originally broke up state monopoly parties. We’ve long known that primary elections push candidates apart to appeal to their parties’ most committed voters. After 1968 the primary system became the exclusive method for nominating presidents, pushing the parties further apart.

In broadcasting, three networks controlled radio and television until Congress changed copyright rules, allowing cable television expansion to over a hundred channels, and niche broadcasting to separate audiences. The courts and Federal Communications Commission also killed the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to present a balanced presentation of controversial issues of public importance. Then Congress made it almost impossible to hold any internet company responsible for even the most outrageous falsehoods published on their systems. Those media law changes made it unnecessary to pay any attention to opposing views. Plus, instead of limiting damages for defamation, as Justice Marshall suggested, the Court gave media much more complete protection.

At the Federal Housing Administration, officials long refused to insure mortgages to African-Americans, regardless of income. That prevented African-Americans from joining the march to the suburbs, drove disinvestment in their existing neighborhoods, and pushed us apart.

The end of the draft has been huge. The military had drafted people without regard to wealth, class, or geography. President Teddy Roosevelt said “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.”[2] And indeed the soldiers came home with lifelong buddies from all over America. Arguments about the Vietnam war ended the draft and led to the so-called volunteer army, which doesn’t reach the same cross-section of America. That changed our attitudes toward each other, and how polarized we’ve become.

There were good reasons for the changes to the nominating system, the media, and the draft but the combined price has been to polarize us. Polarization matters. It blocks our ability to listen to each other, even to care about each other. And if we can’t care, the very notion of public welfare, what’s good for all of us, seems like self-pleading.

The market can’t pick up the slack; it fails in many ways. Worse, for market ideologues, democracy, the major counterforce to the market, seems illegitimate. In other words, the stakes are huge – the legacy of our Revolution, our Constitution, and our collective welfare. Somehow, we have to break down polarization, and restore what used to bring us together or find substitutes – for public schools, military service, media that reached across aisles, and integrated housing and communities.

I doubt the cat can be put back in the bag, especially in this polarized environment, but I’d love to hear good suggestions.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 31, 2017. For a more extensive treatment, see my Unfit For Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics at 153-67 (NYU Press 2016) or Law and the Polarization of American Politics, 25 Georgia State L. Rev. 339 (2008).

[1] For a more extensive treatment, see my Unfit For Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics at 153-67 (NYU Press 2016) or Law and the Polarization of American Politics, 25 Georgia State L. Rev. 339 (2008).

[2] Quoted in John Whiteclay Chambers, II, Conscripting for Colossus: The Progressive Era and the Origin of the Modern Military Draft in the United States in World War I, in The Military in America from the Colonial Era to the Present 302 (Free Press, Peter Karsten, ed., rev. ed. 1986).


A View of the Ballot

September 15, 2014

I got on line the other night to see what to expect at the voting booth today. We have all been hearing about the primary races for Governor and Lieutenant Governor, although polls tell us that lots of people haven’t heard of Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu, or if they’ve heard the names don’t know why. That’s clearly not true of WAMC listeners. But what else is on the ballot? Actually plenty. Read the rest of this entry »


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