Wednesday, January 5, 2011

more content

In addition to sporadically blogging about politics on here, I'm going to try a reading challenge! Undoubtedly some of these books will be political and some won't. But all of them will be LOOONG!

I've signed up for "Do These Books Make my Butt Look Big?"

Friday, June 18, 2010

Back in the saddle again...

... to respond to none other than Peggy Noonan, who writes in the Wall Street Journal today that Obama is a "snakebit" president, always looking surprised when things go wrong. The President, she argues, lacks ready-made solutions that the Republicans can criticize for being socialist or intending to retroactively abort grandma while riding a gay, Mexican, tax-raising donkey, or something.*

By equating Obama with Jimmy Carter, and then comparing him unfavorably to Ronald Reagan, I think Noonan is using Republican code to say that Obama is weak (perhaps this is the same code where "crime" equals "black?") What is missing here is the bigger picture. When you connect the dots between Carter, Reagan, and Obama, you come up with a different conclusion: the office itself is weak.

It is a powerful institution, the presidency. Presidents have extraordinary unilateral power. At the same time, they are weak within the larger system. Their position is unclear, and in the context of deep and mean partisanship (*to which I am contributing by mocking Republicans throughout this post), presidents end up in a position of party leader. In the Democratic Party, the Democratic President is the official party leader. Perhaps this is all well and good, but it is institutionally weak. As party leader, presidents are expected to hew to established party positions and ideas. This doesn't work so well with most of the actual job description, particularly when it comes to responding to unforeseen situations, running the federal government, and defining the greater goal of national interest.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The speech

I study presidential rhetoric. This means I often have to justify my existence by explaining why presidential rhetoric matters, not infrequently framed in the question "is anyone listening?"

My favorite conservative Gen X New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat, challenged the significance of presidential rhetoric by suggesting that what Obama said about the next steps in Afghanistan is less important than the military strategy in the reason.

I've had to answer to tough critiques of presidential rhetoric, but that's just not a fair standard. Of course military strategy will ultimately determine the course of events in Afghanistan. But presidential rhetoric may play a crucial role in determining the context of that strategy, by virtue of its capacity to influence politics and public opinion.

Strategy is important, but resources are important as well. Those resources are controlled by Congress. Congressional Democrats are increasingly skeptical of devoting resources to the war, some for ideological reasons, but many also for political reasons. Public opinion on these military involvements seems to have soured, as people realize once again that wars are expensive and horrifying.

Wars are expensive and horrifying. And yet we began two of them under the Bush administration, in part because of the way that administration framed potential conflicts and linked them to salient issues, ideas and ways of looking at the world. Both wars initially enjoyed widespread bipartisan support. But the increasing complexity and apparent duplicity of the Iraq war eroded public trust in the logic of both conflicts - in the logic of a large-scale military response to the 9-11 attacks, particularly as the memory of those attacks faded and their salience, for many people, was replaced by concerns about the economy.

To keep costly and horrifying military involvements politically viable, someone needs to remind us that the consequences of non-involvement could be even more costly, and more horrifying. The president is well-poised to do this, and to offer fresh and sound logic to justify deeper involvement. At worst, this is manipulation. At best, it can be a call to civic engagement and sacrifice for national security. Under any circumstances, it is irresponsible to underestimate the need for rhetorical leadership when the tide of popular politics can influence the course and outcome of war.

Up next: so did the speech achieve this goal?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


Conservative activists, victorious (so far) in New York's 23rd, seek to challenge moderate Republicans across the country for competitive seats. This isn't the first time a party has had an ugly struggle over its purpose and meaning. The difference is that the features of the current system force these debates into the public light, whereas they used to happen behind closed doors (smoke-filled rooms and all that). From the party's perspective, having these ideological squabbles out in the open is a bit like the party equivalent of wearing your dirty underwear on the outside of your clothes - is the liberation worth the embarrassment? Plus, it's a little gross for everyone else. Conservative insurgency robs the Republican Party of its main advantage as the out-party: its message. It might be a little more small-d democratic to let the "people" determine the direction of the party, but the purpose of political parties is not to provide an inclusive organizational structure, it's to provide the electorate with meaningful choices at the ballot box.
Although it might look like a grassroots victory in the short term, the fact that the Republican Party seems to be publicly imploding instead of behind-the-scenes brokering is actually bad for American democracy.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The last entry suggested that the real question behind the HL Gates story is how to integrate the context and procedure. While I can't pretend to answer that question for law enforcement officials, the question itself is related to the complicated role of race in our legal norms.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the development of the Ricci (New Haven firefighters) case, and in the subsequent reaction to the case and to its treatment by the U.S. Court of Appeals.

At issue in the Ricci case was a true matter of interpretation. What does it mean for a test to have disparate impacts on members of a minority group? When does that remedy go too far and violate the guarantee of equal protection?

Sotomayor's role in the case is mostly a perfect and irrelevant storm - she and her fellow judges followed precedent and deferred to the judgment of New Haven's elected officials. I am more disappointed in seeming lack of interest in the underlying interpretive questions than in the outcome, although I personally agree with the SCOTUS decision.

But what if the conservative nightmare scenario had proven true? What if the case had reached the high court, Sotomayor had been a member of the high court, and she had thought about her own identity when considering the meaning of such loaded, crucial, and conflictual ideas as disparate impacts and equal protection?

I don't know what would have happened. What bothers me about the discourse of last week's hearings was the repeated implication that there is a clear right answer to legal questions, and then there is the answer driven by particularistic and wrong-headed identity politics, by passion, by preference, by emotion. There are two problems here.

The first is that there is not one right answer when dealing with matters of legal interpretation. Constitutional law boils down to concept and application. What are disparate impacts? What is equal protection? Originalism is one way of answer these interpretive questions. The "living constitution" approach of justices like Souter and Breyer is another. Neither school of thought implies fixed meaning, it just posits different sources of authority for interpretation. Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee proved their anti-intellectualism by suggesting that legal cases had clear correct answers, and that interpretation and -gasp- judgment have no place in the legal world. One might ask, why not simply design Scantron machines to make legal decisions, then?

The second concern is more pernicious and brings us back to the matter of race as part of our relevant political context. Clearly, we are all supposed to pretend that this doesn't matter, that we don't see race or take it into account, and yet it remains a major part of public discourse and is an unmistakable part of American political history. Instead of acknowledge this, it seems that some politicians and commentators have opted to layer racial perspective onto the idea that there can be only one correct answer. That correct answer must be "neutral" and thus not driven by identity in a minority group, by the perspective of women, the disabled, or any other underrepresented group. The "neutral" perspective is defined as being free of any of this other baggage. Particularistic perspectives can sometimes bring be very negative and unproductive baggage. The problem is the implicit equation of white and male with "neutral."

Why not just admit that law is a matter of intellect, debate and interpretation? Why not then admit that people bring their own perspectives to the table in the process of interpretation, particularly when navigating the legally ambiguous and historically fraught topic of race? It seems that otherwise, the burden of proof of "neutrality" falls mostly to members of minority groups, with the white perspective implicitly seen as "neutral." And that seems to me to be a clear example of disparate impact.

A new meaning for the word professorial

The Henry Louis Gates story has me steamed. But not for the reason you might think.

I wasn't there, so I can't weight in on whether Gates was rude or uncooperative or the police were abusive or what might have happened. And I'm not a black man, so I can't pretend to have had that experience.

I am a young, female professor, so it irritates me to hear the word "professorial" thrown around to describe Gates. This term seems to connote older, male, and "distinguished" looking. I confess that, particularly in my summer wardrobe, I couldn't look less distinguished. But I have a PhD. and hold the title of assistant professor, and spend many of my waking hours working on research. I teach several classes each semester, all of them specialized. I think that's pretty professorial.

But on a less personal note, the stereotype displacement has gone even further. CNN's Soledad O'Brien (whose depth has never impressed me very much) kept saying "this man in a polo shirt and slacks!" The tone of the debate is not about how to properly incorporate social and contextual cues that we, as people, all use to assess a situation with the responsibility of police officers and other state actors to coolly apply the law to all citizens equally. There's a real question there to be asked, but instead, the commentary on this decision has essentially shifted race to age and class. Pundits are basically saying "we know what kind of person gets arrested, and this wasn't it."

So much for equal protection. What might a wise Latina have done?

Slightly outdated social issues commentary

Regarding Mark Sanford and social conservatism - The underlying logic of the anti-gay marriage position leaves an important question open: what, then, are gay people supposed to do? Would the social conservative have them live in committed relationships, but without social or legal sanction (some religious institutions do recognize these unions, which is the irony cherry on the idiocy sundae of this entire debate)? This hardly seems like a consistent position. The best logical answer I can discern is that, according to social conservatives, people with a gay orientation should seek remedy and work toward the goal of a heterosexual life style; to live as they think God intended.

Mark Sanford's tearful confession a few weeks ago illustrates the human side of this very messy equation. I would like to note that I am not seeking to equate loving and exclusive gay relationships with the choice to have an extra-marital affair. Rather, Sanford's predicament and response demonstrates the incredibly powerful role of love, and, yes, sexuality, in people's lives.

A consistent worldview isn't too much to ask of an ideological movement that seeks to curb others' civil rights, and to imply instructions about how others should live their lives. If social conservatives want to try and impose their model of society on tolerant Americans of all faith traditions, on secular Americans, and on LGBT Americans, they should provide some better models of how to deny one's most basic emotional needs.