Tag: presidential elections (Page 1 of 2)

The First Democratic Debate: Clinton and Foreign Policy

My overall view of the first democratic debate of the 2016 nomination contest probably tracks with the consensus. I should disclose that I’ve contributed to the Sanders campaign and support it, even though my views on some issues are more conservative.

In brief, Clinton showed herself a capable and exceedingly well-prepared politician. I jokingly commented on social media that this encapsulates her biggest advantage and her biggest liability. But, to be honest, it really is much more of an asset than anything else. She’s extremely smart, experienced,  and skilled at politics. She is also surrounded by people with strong messaging skills—at least when it comes to focused activities, such as debates.

Sanders came across as he does in all other campaign settings: passionate, focused on the issues, and unwilling to go after his rivals in a deeply personal way. It reinforced suspicions among some that the rationale for his candidacy resides in a desire to push the eventual nominee—that is, Clinton—to the left on economic issues. That may have been his original intent, but he remains the only serious alternative to Clinton; my guess is that he takes the support that he’s generated very seriously.

Sanders’ performance, and the reaction it generated, likely come from his “unorthodox” debate preparation:

Sanders’ team sees the first Democratic debate as a chance to introduce a fairly niche candidate to a national audience. So his team intends to let him do what he’s been doing. Far from preparing lines to deploy against Clinton — let alone O’Malley, Lincoln Chafee or Jim Webb — Sanders plans to dish policy details, learned through a handful of briefings with experts brought in by his campaign.

At some point, the Sanders campaign is going to need to make a choice about whether to pivot to a more orthodox approach. Given that one of Sanders’ major asset is his genuine, rather than affected, authenticity, this presents something of a challenge.

I respect Webb a great deal, but I don’t think that tacking to the right on issues like Iran is either good politics or good policy. He’s out of step with the Democratic electorate, and he has no chance at winning the nomination. Chafee’s performance was poor, and does nothing to dispel the key question of his campaign: “why are you even running?”

O’Malley, on the other hand, was comparatively impressive. His attempts to outflank Clinton on the left—particularly on foreign policy—weren’t perfectly implemented, but they point in the direction of how to press these points. For example:

I believe that, as president, I would not be so quick to pull for a military tool. I believe that a no-fly zone in Syria, at this time, actually, Secretary, would be a mistake.

You have to enforce no-fly zones, and I believe, especially with the Russian air force in the air, it could lead to an escalation because of an accident that we would deeply regret.

I support President Obama. I think we have to play a long game, and I think, ultimately — you want to talk about blunders? I think [Putin’s] invasion of Syria will be seen as a blunder.

And this, unsurprisingly, is what I want to talk about. Two of Clinton’s answers on foreign policy troubled me. But for different reasons. Continue reading


Should Romney Talk More About Foreign Policy?

In these summer months while we wait for the Olympics to start and for Romney to pick his VP candidate, the foreign policy cognoscenti has started in on Mitt Romney’s campaign with conflicting advice about whether or not his announced foreign policy trip this later this summer is worthwhile and whether or not the Republican nominee should spend much time talking about the issue.

While as a citizen and foreign policy wonk, I want our prospective commander in chief to fill in the details of what he might do, as an observer of politics, I’m not sure it makes nearly as much sense for a number of reasons. So, should Mitt say more on foreign policy or stay focused on the economy?

Dan Drezner makes the argument that Romney has done himself some serious damage by allowing hawkish but lite press releases to create a bad impression thus far. He suggests that more talk of foreign policy would be good for the country from a democratic governance perspective but also good for the candidate:

In op-ed after op-ed, Romney has relied on blowhard rhetoric and a near-total absence of detail to make his case. In doing so, Romney is the one who has sowed the doubts about his foreign policy gravitas in the first place. If his campaign manages to produce a successful foreign policy speech/road trip, he can dial down one source of base criticism — and focus again on the economy in the fall. 

Dan concedes it may not be especially smart politics for Mitt given that (1) foreign policy is a low priority for the public and that (2) the people may not be buying what he’s selling. However, he still thinks it’s a good idea given the self-inflicted wounds that Romney has incurred by talking tough about Russia being our top geopolitical adversary, among other questionable statements:

Politically, a well-executed foreign policy trip won’t net him a lot of votes, but it would cauterize a festering political wound and allow him to pivot back to the economy.

I suppose it is true that presidential candidates have to meet some sort of basic threshold test on foreign policy. Certainly, Sarah Palin failed that test last time and that may have hurt the McCain ticket on the margins. While anecdotal, I know of some friends who were McCain supporters who just could not vote for that ticket based on their concerns about Palin. That said, I don’t think Romney’s missteps on foreign policy are anywhere near Palin territory for undermining his foreign policy credentials. Language like “festering political wound” strikes me as overwrought.

Commentators have raised a variety of arguments about why Romney should not talk about foreign policy, from the unpopularity of his support for the war in Afghanistan to the limited political rewards of talking about foreign policy before an electorate even less interested than normal in the subject area (see the Cato Institute’s Justin Logan for one perspective along these lines and Daniel Larison for another).

I have two conflicting thoughts about Romney and foreign policy talk that perhaps have not been put forward.

Intermestic Issues
First, the rise of “intermestic” issues, of issues with both a domestic and international content, makes it harder for Romney to avoid talking about them. Here, I’m thinking of both global economic policy and energy, issues with enormous significance for the domestic agenda at home. Remaining silent on the EU crisis and its significance for the United States, beyond dismissive anti-European posturing (while at the same time embracing European austerity policies), may ultimately have some electoral repercussions if Obama can exploit it.

The Challenge of Running to Obama’s Right
However, Romney may have trouble running to the President’s right on foreign policy. There simply is not much room there. The President killed Osama Bin Laden and has extended the drone wars on America’s enemies in ways that look like a continuation of the previous administration. Romney cannot go too far “right” on foreign policy without looking like he’s inviting war with Iran or encouraging a deep freeze in relations with Russia and China.

Romney has repudiated the compassionate conservatism of George W. Bush on foreign aid, the one area where the previous administration received almost universal plaudits with its support for global health and efforts to address HIV/AIDS.

Sure, Romney could embrace the Ron Paul anti-interventionist wing of the Republican Party and create clear blue water between himself and the President, but that would require a more herculean flip-flop on defense spending than even Romney is capable of.

So, Mitt is left in the unenviable position of trying to create policy distance with the President for political reasons (he can’t just endorse a “me too” foreign policy, Obama certainly didn’t do that as candidate) without, at the same time, looking unpresidential in a Palinite or Goldwateresque way. Given the President’s ability to play the Bin Laden card, I say to Romney, talk about foreign policy all you want, but lots of luck with that!


GOP SotU Response Better than SotU (2) – Didn’t Expect that

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Part one of my response to Obama’s 2012 State of the Union is here.

3. The foreign policy section was weaker and more militaristic than usual. The opening bit about the Iraq war making us ‘safer and more respected around the world’ was jaw-dropping. I guess this really is a campaign speech outreach to the right, because I can’t believe any of the president’s 2008 voters actually buy that line. Does anyone believe that anymore, except for the right-wing think-tank set or something? Wow. Didn’t we vote for Obama because of exactly the kind of Bushian American hubris that can read an unjustified, unprovoked, unilateral assault on another state (which would have provoked howls of rejection by Americans if done by any other country in the world) as a great American victory? Veterans too got a pander wishlist – even though even Michelle Bachmann (!) has come to realize that VA benefits will have to be included in any budget deal.

Next came the deeply disturbing comparison of the US democratic body politic to a special forces team. Wow, again. Really? A wildly diverse, sprawling, open, liberal culture should look to JSOC for its model? We are not a nation of armies, and the discipline and anti-individualism of the military is exactly not what we want in our politics. We want our politics to be open, rich, boisterous, a bit chaotic, even fun; we want a social culture open and tolerant enough to create artists and musicians, entrepreneurs and eccentrics, poets and hippies and weirdoes and all that. This is basic Mill here, not Starshship Troopers. This reminds me of Huntington’s infatuation with a military lifestyle compared to pluralism in the Soldier and the State. The militarization of American culture since 9/11 is terrifying, and that even the president would deploy such analogies is all the more reason to end the war on terror and slow the growth of the military-industrial complex.

Finally, I guess Israel now is pretty much a state in the union: our guarantee is ‘iron-clad,’ which sure sounds a lot like a blank-check for Netanyahu to do something erratic. Iran, here we come! And you’ll notice there was nothing on the much-hyped ‘Asian pivot,’ which I am convinced is bogus, because Americans don’t care about Asia.

4. The 2010 GOP response was so reliably jingoistic, shallow, and self-serving, I gave it its own post. But was anyone else really pleased to see how restrained, polite, and professional Daniels was? I was amazed; I expected Tea Party-style hysteria about un-American influences, appeasement on ‘islamofascism,’ incipient erosion of the Constitution under ObamaCare, betrayal of allies, etc. (Where’s Glenn Beck when you need him?)
Instead Daniels was measured and his concerns reasonable. He called the GOP a ‘loyal opposition,’ rejecting the extremism of the GOP presidential debates about Obama as the greatest threat to American since WWII or something. He noted the president’s upright personal life. Ideally this wouldn’t make a difference in a liberal state’s politics. I couldn’t care less how many wives Gingrich has had, but the GOP has become worse than the nuns of my Catholic grade school on sex. The modern GOP wants to regulate the bedroom and the family, so it is nice to see Daniels admit that Obama meets that standard (hint: Gingrich,Limbaugh, and Rove don’t). He also noted how Obama didn’t create the crisis, even if he bucked how much W is actually to blame.
The criticisms that then followed were fairly reasonable. He’s right that we can’t just keep spending like this. Our status as a reserve currency printer does not permanently insure against a Greek-style run (although it does give us a lot more room to misbehave than anyone thought). The math on middle-class entitlements and debt is pretty terrifying over the next generation.
Here’s Sully again on Daniels, saying something similar. See how nice is to have a midwest Republican speaking like a normal guy? Kinda makes you like Ohio after all, huh?
Cross-posted at the Asian Security Blog.


GOP Response Better than SotU (1) – Wow, How’d that Happen?

Each year I try to write on the SotU (2010, 2011). I know they are preposterously scripted, usually forgettable, and almost meaningless as a guide for the upcoming policy season/budget debate. But the political scientist in me thinks that showing the whole panorama of democratic government in one room is hugely instructive for the both US citizenry and for foreigners interested in the US, as well as a great example of how democracies differ from oligarchies and dictatorships with their sycophantic, faux ‘legislatures.’ Let’s hope that somewhere some Chinese, or Burmese, or Syrians can see this and dream that one day they too can … play their own SotU drinking game.

Further the SotU’s often give insight into the presidential mind (however distorted by focus groups) – what he thinks is important or not, ideal preferences for the country, American ‘exceptionalism,’ etc. In this vein, George W Bush’s 2005 SotU was easily the most important of my lifetime, as W laid out a soaring and terrifying image of the US a global democratic revisionist prepared to war for freedom indefinitely. It scared the pants off the country and the planet, but that in itself made it a major, frightening moment in the W presidency. So I still think we should watch them. But, I will grant that you should probably play one of those drinking games while you’re at it.

1. Domestic’s not my area, but I have to agree with Sullivan that this was just a grab bag of bleh. Instead of the big issues like deficit control, entitlement restraint, broad tax hikes (to actually pay for the government we want), defense spending control, etc., it was a bunch of populist/protectionist tax alterations that, as Sullivan notes, will make the tax code even more impenetrable than it is. Isn’t there pretty much a national consensus now that the tax code needs to be simplified? And the protectionism masquerading as ‘bringing jobs home’ was ridiculous – an unworkable tangle of new law, more government, more lawsuits at the WTO. That’s the last thing the world economy needs in the great recession, and you know MNCs will fight this stuff tooth and nail, move resources even faster, relocate, lawyer up like hell to find the loopholes, etc. If you are one of those conspiracy theorists looking for socialism from Obama, you finally got some evidence. This verged toward old school Democrats-from-the-70s industrial policy.

2. What a lame sop to manufacturing. I understand why, and part of me appreciates it. I’m from Cleveland; I have seen lots of small towns in Ohio get hammered by globalization and contraction of manufacturing (it can be fairly depressing to drive around the state). For decades, I have seen Cleveland slip and slip and slip; the city’s east side is so violent now. But honestly, this is the sort of stuff politicians always say to Ohio and the Midwest when elections come up. Not only is it bad economics (hold that thought), but, as Michael Lind and Thomas Frank have pointed out for years, the Midwest has never seen a big industrial turn-around despite the bi-annual pandering we get as swing-states. The first half felt more like campaign speech on my old street to get the neighborhood out to vote for Democrats, because this is the type of stuff the Ohio Democratic Party has been saying as long as I can remember. I imagine other midwestern listeners would think the same, but this was pretty much the ODP’s playbook, and Obama even mentioned Cleveland.

Part two will go up in two days

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.


Comprehending Gingrich

Newt Gingrich

Born Newton Leroy McPherson, the man now simply known as “Newt Gingrich” has been surging in the latest opinion polls asking Republican voters to identify their preferred presidential candidate. He also recently won the endorsement of the Manchester Union Leader, which 538’s Nate Silver finds to be important in the early New Hampshire primary:

This analysis finds that The Union Leader’s endorsement has been highly statistically significant in helping to explain the voting results. Consistent with the simpler averaging method that we used before, it pegs the endorsement as having roughly an 11-percentage-point impact.

Academic readers of this blog may well know that Gingrich, as one scholar described him, is “a card-carrying member of the overeducated elite….Gingrich holds the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Modern European History from Tulane University in New Orleans.” He had a tenure-track job at West Georgia College in the 1970s, though he was denied tenure and took up politics full-time.

Today, someone put Gingrich’s dissertation on the internet. Feel free to bookmark and read later the former House Speaker’s lengthy take on “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo, 1945-1960.” Since I don’t have time in the near-term to read this tome myself, I’m dependent upon the prior work of Laura Seay, a young scholar now at Morehouse College, who actually reviewed this work in 2009:

I finally sucked it up and headed to the basement microfilm room in the library to read Gingrich’s dissertation. (When I say “read” here, I mean, of course, that I skimmed through until I found something interesting.)

Seay reports quite a bit of detail about Gingrich’s dissertation on her blog post. I won’t spoil too much of her review (read it yourself), but the take home point is relatively important:

The whole thing is kind of a glorified white man’s burden take on colonial policy that was almost certainly out of vogue in the early 1970’s.

I mention this point because I’m reminded of something ridiculous candidate Gingrich said about Barack Obama in September 2010 to National Review Online:

“What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anticolonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]? That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior.”

Now that we know about Gingrich’s early work as an historian, I ask the following questions:

What if Gingrich is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Belgian, pro-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]? What if that is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior?

For related discussion, see this on Libya, this on Iran, and this on the latest in Afghanistan and Pakistan, etc.


Ugh, there’s still a year to go….

There are many reasons why I hate the length of American presidential campaigns — not the least of which is the banality of most political journalism — and quite frankly I haven’t been paying much attention to any of the current campaigns. But these two clips below do suggest that long campaigns — and the thousand or so debates — may produce some benefit. With each passing day Cain, Perry, and Bachmann reveal more of their amateurishness and that they really are not fit to be president. Yet, all three had significant populist surges that might have created far different dynamics in a condensed cycle. So, on that score, I guess we can thank the never-ending campaign process. Still, I’m pretty sure I’ll be tuning it all out again tomorrow — there’s still a year to go. Ugh…



By now you’ve probably seen the news of Sarah Palin resigning as governor of Alaska. My first reaction was Whaaa?????? Since I too am aware of all internet traditions, my second reaction was to cruise over to LGM and see what DaveNoon had to say about things. My third reaction was to scan the blogosphere for newsy-political gossip. TPM, employing the patented Duck methodology of analysis, had as good a take as anyone:

It looks like a duck and quacks like a duck. Either Palin is resigning ahead of some titanic scandal (which should emerge in short order if it exists) or her resignation was triggered by an even more extreme mental instability than we’d previously suspected.

Why would she stick around as Alaska governor? Maybe to govern> Perhaps come up with some sort of signature program or philosophy on which to run? I know this all sounds crazy in the context of Palin, but those obsessed with the R nominee in 2012 need to relax. At this point 4 years ago, no one considered Obama a serious candidate. George Allen was still a contender. Palin is out for reasons that will certainly emerge over the coming weeks. I’m now officially done with 2012 until November 10, 2010.

(updated after reading the morning paper) Kurtz goes there–the press won’t have Sarah Palin to kick around anymore.

…really, I just couldn’t resist Marshall’s Duck line. How could any self respecting Duck blogger let that one slide??


Obama and coal

This week, in my International Security class, we discussed energy and environmental issues like climate change. One of my students asked about President-elect Barack Obama’s plan to “bankrupt the coal industry.”

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin made this charge near the end of the presidential election campaign, based on an interview Obama conducted in January with the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle. Palin charged that the liberal paper withheld this story, even though the paper has had the audio and video on its website all year (and promoted this fact). The right is still pushing this story.

Right-leaning NewsBusters on November 2 offered this transcript of the alleged withheld information:

What I’ve said is that we would put a cap and trade system in place that is as aggressive, if not more aggressive, than anybody else’s out there.

I was the first to call for a 100% auction on the cap and trade system, which means that every unit of carbon or greenhouse gases emitted would be charged to the polluter. That will create a market in which whatever technologies are out there that are being presented, whatever power plants that are being built, that they would have to meet the rigors of that market and the ratcheted down caps that are being placed, imposed every year.

So if somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can; it’s just that it will bankrupt them because they’re going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.

While Obama did use the words “coal” and “bankrupt them” together, he also explained in this interview his support for “clean coal” technology. Indeed, the widely quoted comment was provoked when an editor asked Obama about his seemingly inconsistent support for a specific pro-coal bill and his statements that he only supports coal if it is clean.

After claiming that his policies are consistent, Obama immediately started talking about the need to limit greenhouse gases, which would include coal-fired plants. Then, he adds:

“But this notion of no coal, I think, is an illusion. Because the fact of the matter is, is that right now we are getting a lot of our energy from coal. And China is building a coal-powered plant once a week. So what we have to do then is figure out how can we use coal without emitting greenhouse gases and carbon. And how can we sequester that carbon and capture it.”

He also said, “if technology allows us to use coal in a clean way, we should pursue it.”

Ultimately, Obama called for the market to pick winners and losers based on the ability to operate under cap and trade conditions — presumably new technology made affordable by higher energy costs for traditional means of producing energy. Billions of dollars would be generated from the equivalent of a fossil fuel tax, available then to fund new cleaner energy, such as solar, biodiesel, etc. Obama even said that nuclear power could be an option if scientists develop safe waste disposal means.

I’m not optimistic about the prospects for “clean coal,” but we should not enter a new debate on climate change with the assumption that the new President is out to kill the fossil fuel industries.

If you want to watch for yourself, the coal question is just over 25 minutes into the 53 minute interview. The energy portion is 4 or 5 minutes in length.


Do you live in the “real America”?

Remember when Bill Clinton promised to put together a Cabinet that “looks like America”? Then, to his credit, George W. Bush “appointed a more diverse set of top advisers than any president in history.”

Now, however, Governor Sarah Palin defines “real America” in a substantially less inclusive manner:

“We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation.”

As anyone paying attention knows, an unsettling number of Americans think that Barack Obama is a Muslim and a terrorist sympathizer. And now, apparently, a socialist, ready to revive Ronald Reagan’s welfare queens.

Too many people do not add, “not that there’s anything wrong with that” when talking about the Muslim faith. As Dan’s post earlier today revealed, Colin Powell endorsed Senator Barack Obama for president partly because of these unhinged Republican attacks.

Obviously, however, the McCain political team thinks this tactic could work. Otherwise, why would they keep at it?

To investigate Palin’s “real America,” where such attacks are apparently aimed, Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight yesterday put up what must be one of the best blog posts of the year. Go read the whole thing, but this snippet explains what Silver was attempting:

Since her coming out in Dayton, Ohio on August, 29th, Palin has held (or is scheduled to hold) public events in 44 cities according to the Slate.com candidate tracker. These include all events described as “rallies”, “town halls”, “gatherings” or “discussions”, but not things like press availabilities, fundraisers or debates.

I looked at the racial composition of voting-age (18+) population in these 44 cities as according to the 2000 census.

What did Silver find? Who lives in the “real America”? What does it look like?

They are, on average, 83.3 percent non-Hispanic white, 7.5 percent black, 5.2 percent Hispanic, and 4.0 percent “other”. By comparison, the US 18+ population in 2000 was 72.0 percent white, 11.2 percent black, 11.0 percent Hispanic, and 5.9 percent other. Thirty-four of Palin’s 44 cities were whiter than the US average.

Silver demonstrates that host cities of Obama’s events arguably look a lot more like America.

Republicans are not the only guilty parties here. Palin’s words about “real America” remind me a bit too much of some remarks Senator Hillary Clinton made in the primary campaign — and talking heads like Chris Matthews were only too eager to follow that path. There’s nothing wrong with politicians praising the values and beliefs of hard-working Americans, but they are way over the line when they start dividing the country by race, gender, faith, or geography, as if some particular group had a right to claim supremacy over others. This is a “values voter” campaign gone mad.

I think the divisiveness fomented by his opponents stems, at least in part, from the fact that a biracial guy named Barack Hussein Obama is apparently building an unprecedented winning coalition. It does not look quite like the one Al Gore and John Kerry tried to build this decade — nor like the one Bill Clinton put together in 1992 and 1996. Sure, Obama’s Electoral map will likely include all the states Kerry won, plus Gore states New Mexico and Iowa. However, Obama’s map will apparently also include Colorado and Virginia — and may well include some mix of Nevada, Missouri, North Carolina, Florida and Ohio. At one time or another, Obama has shown surprising strength in North Dakota, West Virginia and even Georgia. Nate Silver thinks Arkansas could be moved into play.

If this is an earthquake election, a generational realignment, it may well foretell Democratic successes well into this new century. Or, the election results may merely reflect the unique candidacy of Obama. America’s young people favor him by a wide margin and are apparently poised to vote in unprecedented numbers. Obama is doing especially well with the college-educated and more young Americans have attended college and obtained degrees than their parents and grandparents did. Some pundits are discussing a “reverse Bradley” effect, whereby Obama may outperform his polling numbers in states with large African American populations. He’s poised to get a very large share of the Hispanic vote.

Have Palin, Clinton, and Matthews been saying that these are not “real Americans,” not “hard-working” Americans? Are these Americans instead socialists symps, lining up to get their piece of new welfare action?

I don’t buy it and the polls suggest that most voters don’t either.

Yet, I’m not prepared to declare, as is commenter EL that “Soon the Republican party will belong exclusively to fundamentalist Christians.” However, it does seem as if Barack Obama is trying to significantly increase the size of the Democratic coalition — defining a new, more inclusive “real America.” Richard Nixon’s southern strategy is still bringing electoral votes to the Republican Party, but the possible defection of Virginia and North Carolina demonstrates that 2008 may genuinely be a change election.


Motives, Action, and Ordinary People

I started writing this post as a further contribution to the comment thread sparked by my last post, and in particular to the discussion that Janice Bially Mattern and I were having there. But my reply got too long for Haloscan to process, so I have moved it up a level and made it into a separate post. Plus, in doing so I am able to add this striking graphic, which is, I think, another example of the phenomenon we’re wrestling with. Full disclosure, I found this picture over at FiveThirtyEight. Fuller disclosure, as you might guess, the discussion that Janice and I are having is itself about round 538 or so in an ongoing conversation; this time we’re having the discussion in public and online, however, and I think that’s enough added value to continue the exercise.

Enough preliminaries. I think that our discussion about what to make of expressions like those captured on this video or the above graphic is moving between at least three different concerns or registers. They’re related, but I think it’s helpful to isolate each one so that we can get a clearer picture of the issues at stake.

1) my initial post was a cautionary note about inferring people’s true opinions or motives from their public performances. The fact that people are captured on film or video making racist/sexist/homophobic — or even just downright factually inaccurate — comments, I suggested, does not mean that they “really believe” the things that they are saying. Instead, a whole number of factors might incline a specific person to use such language: yes, they might “really believe” their statement/performance. but they might also be saying/doing something that they think is going to get them the approval of their peer group, or annoy their opponents, or “keep the conversational ball in the air” by recirculating some phrase or gesture that has previously been circulated all around them.

Given this potential micro-level diversity, I argued (and generally argue in situations like this) that we ought not to concern ourselves with the precise motives and beliefs of individuals, but instead ought to craft explanations that allow such inner compulsions towards action to vary, while we instead focus on the social context out of which and into which the action flows. So instead of looking at why a specific individual chose to use a specific piece of language or perform a specific action, we look at the cultural vocabulary available in the situation, and the social transactions with which that vocabulary is entwined — in this case, the vocabulary linking Obama to socialism/communism/terrorism, characterizing him as a Muslim, and impugning the manliness of his supporters, and the social networks of partisan news organizations and long-standing local communities within which signs and symbols can be quickly recirculated. This kind of analysis gives us the conditions of possibility for the performance(s) in question, and it has what I would consider the great advantage of confining itself to the sphere of the empirical instead of making inferences about unobservable motives and beliefs — which is not the same thing as saying that people don’t have motives and beliefs, but is merely a claim that we don’t need to know the precise details of those motives and beliefs in order to account for social action and public performances.

Janice points out, in effect, that this is an incomplete explanation, unless I wanted to conclude that people were compelled by their environment to act in specific ways. If I want to preserve contingency and agency, don’t I have to interpose some kind of process of individual deliberation between the environment and observed performances? Without this, my position looks like a kind of cultural determinism: the circulation of a particular bit of language on Fox News or conservative talk radio leads to its deployment in practice by McCain supporters at campaign events. And I would agree if I were trying to account for individual decisions. But I am not trying to account for particular people’s decisions to use or not to use a given linguistic formulation. My concern is not with why that particular gentleman stood outside of the hall in Toledo where Obama was delivering a speech, holding a grammatically confused but still clearly expressive sign; rather, my concern is with the social and cultural configuration(s) that make such performances possible in the first place.

On that score, I think that we need to look at the interrelation of news and propaganda, as well as the segmented networks through which information flows in present-day America — it is entirely possible to surround oneself with sources that are all slanted in a particular direction, and more or less completely ignore the other sources that are out there in the media landscape, and when this is combined with interpersonal social relations that recirculate those messages, I think we can start to see how performances like these become possible. (In fairness, this works in the opposite direction too: after a hard day at work reading liberal blogs and newspapers, one can come home, attend an Obama house party reception, then catch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report before bed…we may like our own cultural vocabulary-bubble better because it’s ours, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee that it’s any less subject to the same dynamics as I am highlighting here.)

2) Janice replies with the language of “choice,” and suggests that a) language use in particular always involves choice, and b) an account without choice is insufficient, primarily since it lets people off the hook by not forcing them to take responsibility for their actions and not letting us hold them accountable for their actions. Let me take those in turn.

a) “choice” and “decision” language tends to bother me when applied to social action, and it bothers me both on empirical and on normative grounds. Empirically, “choice” bothers me because the language envisions both the presence of plausible alternative courses of action, and the presence of a more or less conscious process of deliberation between those alternatives, and I am simply not convinced that these two conditions always obtain. What alternative cultural vocabulary is empirically, practically available to ordinary people expressing their dissatisfaction with Obama? I would need to actually see available alternate language in order to buy this — and it’s not sufficient to hypothetically construct an alternative vocabulary that might exist, or to draw on the vocabulary valuable to us as detached observers. What I would need to see is empirical evidence that the speakers in question — the people in the video — actually had alternative modes of expression available to them, legitimated in their local social contexts. Then I would be prepared to concede that there were alternatives available.

But that’s only half the empirical battle, because then there’s this matter of “deliberation” to consider. I’m unsure how one ever knows whether deliberation has actually taken place, since we either have an unobservable internal process or a set of public expressions — the unobservable process can’t be observed, and the public expressions are subject to the same social dynamics I’m discussing here. Someone’s “private” journal is nonetheless “public” in that it uses collectively-constituted vocabularies and arguments and commonplaces — and that looks to me less like “deliberation” (leading to an inward compulsion to act) and more like legitimation (shaping action by negotiating the boundaries of acceptability, and in a sense drawing the action along with it). In the absence of empirical evidence of deliberation, I’m not sure how this presumption helps us.

That said, I can certainly see how it helps normatively, because if we presume deliberation than we can concretely claim that agency intervenes between structured environment and empirical outcome: Fox News didn’t make these people say what they said and do what they did, rather they deliberated and came to the conclusion that saying/doing these things was a good idea. But while this preserves a certain measure of structural indeterminacy, I am unclear that it preserves agency — or, better, I am unsure that it avoids what Talcott Parsons referred to as “the utilitarian’s dilemma.” Parsons pointed out that if we presume that individuals are making deliberate choices, and if we want to explain a social situation while retaining that presumption, we either have to explain their choices in more or less deterministic terms (heredity and environment, he argues) and thus eliminate their freedom to choose, or we have to allow people’s preferences to fluctuate more or less at random and thus give up any hope of explaining the situation but preserve their freedom to choose. Hence: efforts to preserve agency that rely on notions like “decision” strike me as rather paradoxical.

b) I am not convinced that it’s our job as social scientists to hold people accountable for their actions. Choice language — or, rather, an analytic involving individual choice — certainly permits that kind of normative evaluation, but for my part I don’t think that the purpose of analytical tools is to evaluate concrete social action. I think our analytics are about explaining and understanding situations; taking or not taking responsibility is a rather different endeavor than explaining/understanding. And there is nothing in my position that prevents us, or someone else, from holding the speakers and performers accountable for their actions; what my position does do is to deny that act of holding someone responsible the sanction of scientific or even scholarly grounding, and restore it to its (proper, in my view) normative status. Put differently, I don’t think that responsibility and accountability are empirical matters to be settled social-scientifically — I think they’re practical, or practical-moral, matters to be worked out in the course of social and political practice. So whether people are individually responsible for their public performances strikes me as the kind of question that demands a different kind of discussion than a discussion about the how and why of those actions. In the end, this is because there’s no way to social-scientifically determine whether someone is “responsible” for something, because responsibility is a value-orientation rather than a social-scientific conclusion.

[Note that it is, however, entirely possible to social-scientifically analyze how a group or organization comes to regard someone as responsible for something. That’s the kind of question one could, in principle, settle empirically. Whether the person in question was or was not “really” responsible, however? I can’t imagine anything but a social and political resolution to that question.]

3) This leads us to the third issue: whether it’s normatively preferable to use an analytic presuming and thus celebrating individual choice and decision, or to use an analytic that avoids “choice” language, deliberately doesn’t inquire too deeply into motivations, and contents itself with sketching empirically-plausible alternatives and conditions of possibility. I have already signaled my preference here, as has Janice, so there’s not much more to say — except that for my money a situation like the one depicted in the images I’ve linked to here presents an opportunity not for judgment, but for education. Not “education” in the sense of giving these people more information so that they will see that my/our point of view is superior, but “education” in the sense of helping, or forcing, people to confront the implications of what they’ve just said or performed. Holding a mirror up to students is, I find, a very helpful pedagogical technique — reflecting their claims back to them, perhaps slightly sharpened to bring out implications that they might not have considered beforehand. In effect, it’s an opportunity to provoke a crisis. And I would be constrained if I were to presume that performances were the result of conscious deliberation and more or less rational choice — constrained to provoke that crisis, because if the performance emanated from some internal disposition on the speaker then no crisis would result. But in practice, I see all the time — both in the classroom and outside of it — that people do not seem to have fully thought out what they are saying or doing, and that by holding up a mirror a crisis can be provoked. I do not pretend to know precisely why this is so, because that would require me to know a lot more about the internal dispositions of my interlocutors than I think that I can reliably know, but I have observed it happening a lot. The indeterminacy of the crisis, the moment when the ground falls out — that’s when agency happens, that’s when creativity and contingency actually come into play, that’s when I deliberately don’t want to “explain” what is going on because in so doing I’m taking agency away from my interlocutor. I would argue that my non-decisionist analytic supports that practice better than a choice analytic, which is ultimately the justification for using it.

Long enough for now.


al Qaeda’s electioneering

Current polls reveal that the economy is at the top of voters’ agenda and that they trust Senator Barack Obama to handle the ongoing crisis better than Senator John McCain. Today’s Rasmussen Daily Tracking Poll, for example, has Obama leading 51%-44% overall and by 63-32 “among voters who name the economy as the top voting issue.”

However, that same poll revealed that McCain has a whopping 74-24 lead “among those who say that national security is the highest priority.” Luckily for Obama, half the electorate says the economy is the most important priority, while only 19% “understand” it is national security.

Obviously, however, international events could change that calculus. In March 2004, an al Qaeda-affiliated terror group attacked Madrid’s train system just before the Spanish elections. The BBC reported 6 months later:

The evidence to date suggests that the Madrid attacks did not take long to plan or cost much to commit.

Given all that we know about the persistent vulnerability of open societies like the US, al Qaeda could do something to effect the election.

Remember the closing weekend of the close 2004 election? Osama bin Laden released a tape that Republican talking heads on TV interpreted as an endorsement of John Kerry, even as they gleefully boasted that “We want people to think ‘terrorism’ for the last four days…anything that raises the issue in people’s minds is good for us.”

That weekend, straight talking John McCain declared simply about the tape: “It’s very helpful to the president.”

Would al Qaeda strike the US in advance of the November 2008 elections in order to influence the results? Which candidate would al Qaeda want in office?

McCain promises to stay in Iraq to pursue victory, while Obama says the US will withdraw from Iraq over a period of 16 months and focus much more attention on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Where would al Qaeda prefer to fight the US?

If the US is attacked by terrorists in the next month, or even if bin Laden releases another high profile tape, national security issues could become much more prominent in the election and McCain’s prospects could dramatically improve as a result.

Ironically, if Congress manages to “solve” the financial crisis soon, the economy might become less of an issue for voters.

Then again, political science research reveals that voters tend to form a perception of the economy and the parties fairly well in advance of the election, making the results fairly predictable by Labor Day of an election year. If this is true, then the debates, the reaction to the debates, and other apparent campaign “signals” are merely “noise.”


Practical problems

Last night I walked into my house after my usual commute home to find that the house was much warmer than I expected. A quick glance at the thermostat showed that something was wrong, since the room temperature was about 10 or 15 degrees warmer than the thermostat setting. Further investigation revealed that there was no air coming out of any of the vents in the house. Behold, a practical problem.

President Bush’s approval ratings are in the toilet. The war in Iraq continues to be a divisive issue, and the presumptive Republican candidate stood and stands with Bush on that issue, as on several other emotive positions. The vice-presidential candidate’s background takes “experience” out of the race as an issue, since it’s now completely unclear which ticket has more of the relevant professional preparation to be in charge of the government. Behold, a practical problem.

What fascinates me is that the solution — or part of the solution — presently being proposed for each of these problems involves an essentializing strategy: a way of apprehending objects in the world as though they had relatively fixed, mind-independent essences. Of course, proponents of this strategy would probably not say “as though”; they would likely say that they were simply apprehending the essences of objects. I’d like to let the jury remain out on that question for a moment, and simply focus on the strategy itself. What is essentialized varies in each case; the Republican party seems to be essentializing “country,” while last night I was essentializing “my air conditioner.” Despite this variation of objects, the strategy is quite similar, even though the practical context within which the strategy occurs is quite different.

Let’s think first about my air temperature problem. No air was coming out of the vents, despite the fan running (I could hear it running, and also visually confirm that at least the outside unit fan was turning). After verifying that the ducts were not closed off, and that no vent in the entire house was receiving any airflow, I turned to an investigation of the central unit itself in the basement. The box containing the compressor coils was very cold to the touch, condensation had accumulated on the outside, and there was some water on the ground. It felt frozen . . . Hmm. Speculation: the coils froze. I turned off the air conditioner but left the fan on, and in a couple of minutes the water-flow from one of the pipes leading to a drain on the floor increased from some drops to a steady trickle, and a distinct crackling noise was heard emanating from the coils. Looks like I was right. Now, I wonder how that happened. it’s been hot and we’ve been running the AC a lot, but that shouldn’t matter . . . hey, I wonder if the air flow from outside is impeded somehow. Maybe I’d better look at the air filter — which, when I pulled it out, was very caked with dust and grime. Further speculation: the dirty air filter impeded the flow of air, and this caused the coils to freeze. Solution: change air filter, run the fan but not the AC for a while until the ice melts, then turn the AC back on. This was reinforced by a phone-call to an HVAC tech, who agreed with my diagnosis. And sure enough, a few hours later we were able to turn the AC back on and cool down the house.

What happened here? What I did was to participate in a practical problem-solving situation, one with a clear goal (get the house cooled down) and some parameters (use the AC to cool the house, since it was hot and windless outside; avoid a service-call and the accompanying charge if possible). I noted a problem, shifted into observer-mode to gather data, speculated about the situation, checked some of the likely consequences of that speculation, and then repeated the process until I arrived at a possible solution — a solution that was itself put to a practical evaluative test by being tried out. And in the end the problem was solved, in part by a strategy of looking to the unit as though it had a dispositional essence that was unknown and that I had to grasp. My supposition that the (unobserved, since I did not want to rip open the enclosure housing the coils!) unit was frozen arose in the context of solving a practical problem, and should be evaluated based on its contribution to the eventual solution of that problem. The AC is working again, so apparently my essentializing of the unit was practically efficacious — and, apparently, not out of line with what an experienced technician also would have done (this based on a phone conversataion).

Note: it is not necessary that my supposition have been in some transcendental, absolute sense “right” in order for it to have been practically efficacious. I still don’t know that the coils froze, if by “know” we mean “have an absolutely secure grasp on the nature of the coils at given points in time.” But if by “know” we mean “are able to work with the coils and produce a desired outcome,” then yes, I know that they were frozen, and probably that they were frozen because of a dirty air-filter impeding air flow. So the issue is not that my speculation “really” corresponded to the way that things really were in the world — maybe it did, maybe it didn’t, maybe that’s a meaningless notion to begin with — but that it was a useful instrument in the context of solving a practical problem.

Shift over to the Republican Party. As the incumbent party, they’d usually want to run by identifying themselves with the great successes of the status quo and promising to continue them, but with Bush’s approval ratings so low and such widespread dissatisfaction with the present state of things in the US (including the usual batch of things people are annoyed about that the President can’t do anything to address in the short-term, such as funding for public schools and the like), that’s not an available option. Pick a female vice-presidential candidate: good, allows the Republicans to portray themselves as change agents, maybe depresses turnout among Democrats (especially disgruntled Clinton supporters) a bit. But what might electrify the electorate even more? Speculation: we need a new tag-line, a slogan . . . how about “Country First”? That allows the Republicans to claim the rhetorical high ground/trump card of representing the WHOLE instead of just some of its parts, the “unum” part of “e pluribus unum,” and also to characterize their opponents as more interested in the parts and the pluribus than in the over-riding interests of the WHOLE. Insert “War on Terror(ism)” appeal here, and reinforce that old notion dating at least back to Machiavelli that dangerous worlds outside the city/polis/state demand extraordinary political actions and a logic that privileges survival above all else — the survival of the WHOLE. Country First.

This is essentializing a strategy as my working with my air conditioner. In both cases, the actors utilizing the strategy have to be attuned to the situation, gather information, and then put forth a speculative account of an essence such that that account can inform what they do next. And in neither case are the speculators completely free to speculate on whatever they want and in whatever direction they want; political operatives listened to their constituents as attentively as I “listened” to my air conditioner. The proposed solution arises not from some transcendental heaven, but from a concrete set of practical experiences and an ongoing effort to solve a problem.

But there’s a major difference, and it’s not that my air conditioner has an essence while the country does not. I reject that kind of dichotomy, because the statement about my air conditioner having an essence is only meaningful within a practical context of trying to cool my house down, and that’s no warrant for concluding that my air conditioner “really” has an essence that I accurately grasped. Instead, I think that the difference here is that the practical context is aiming at different kinds of outcome. My essentializing efforts vis-a-vis my air conditioner were intended — they were part of a program designed to — control the object of analysis. I wanted to make my air conditioner do something different from what it was doing, and as part of the means of doing that I essentialized it, contingently and contextually, and did so to great practical effect.

But the Republican strategists are not, I submit, seeking to control their essentialized object; rather, they are seeking to shape social action, and in particular the action of voters. That requires them to engage in a contest of public rhetoric; those are the rules of the game, so outright coercion and fraud and other techniques are outside of the zone of legitimate options (which doesn’t mean that they aren’t done, just that they aren’t done openly, and that they can be challenged if exposed). So they listen attentively to the voters, and to what those voters say and do with respect to a notion like ‘country’. It’s a tricky business, because if they go too far away from what people are already saying and doing then the message falls flat. So coining a political slogan is in many ways the fine art of explicitly articulating tacit understandings and practices, and the important thing about tacit understandings and practices is that the articulator has some wiggle-room in concretizing them and making them explicit. And essentialism, especially the essentialising of the political community, has a long and distinguished history of working pretty well at shaping social action.

But just like with my air conditioner, the relative success of an essentialising strategy tells us nothing whatsoever about the “real” essence of the object in question. If the Republicans succeed with this slogan, it will not be because they have accurately grasped the essence of ‘country’. Instead, it will be (in part) because they have promulgated a strategic essentialism that met with some social and political resonance among the electorate. And resonance is not a one-way street; the recipient can react to the message, and negotiations can ensue — negotiations that can sometimes shift the essentialized notion. But they won’t be be negotiations with the object; they’ll be negotiations with other social actors. When I dealt with my air conditioner, I had to negotiate with it directly; other social actors were involved, but so was the object more or less directly. Not so with political strategies, where the object not need even be addressed directly. And that’s an important difference — not in the least because of the pervasive academic error of importing a successful essentializing strategy into our analytical framework as though it had succeeded in actually grasping the essence of the object in question. Essentializing strategies, whether in politics or in my basement, don’t work that way, and we do ourselves a grave disservice by evaluating them as if they did.


Being there

In the latest incarnation of the Iraq war issue in the general election, John McCain is criticizing Barak Obama because Obama hasn’t been to Iraq in some time, and therefore, he’s not qualified to comment on Iraq policy because he hasn’t “been there” to “see it for himself.”

Rhetorically, it’s a slick move by McCain. Take a widely perceived negative, his support of the war, and turn it into a positive by emphasizing experience and criticizing Obama’s capacity for sound judgment. There was some press speculation that Obama might now need to visit Iraq as a candidate to blunt this line of attack, which plays into McCain’s hands because its debating the issue on his turf.

This, however, raised a larger issue for me, one with implications not just for the election, but for research methods in the social sciences. Namely, how important is it to be there (or have been there) in order to make an argument and draw a defensible conclusion about a thing. We seem to have a fetish for certain types of experience, thinking it leads to insight about how certain things work. But such doesn’t always seem to be the case.

Take, for example, baseball. You’ll notice that the world of baseball analysts, managers, and team executives is replete with former players who supposedly “know the game” having been there and played it. For a long time this kind of claim to expertise ruled the day, until the “stat-heads” came along and showed that much of what the “baseball people” thought didn’t quite work that way. Hall of Fame player Joe Morgan is celebrated by some as one of the best baseball commentators for his work on ESPN’s Sunday Night baseball. He also has inspired a fantastic blog that revels in point out how foolish most of his comments are when subjected to statistical analysis. Can Bill James, who never played the game, know more about baseball than someone with a Hall of Fame career?

Back to Iraq and the election—can John McCain really “know more” about the war because he 1) served in the military and 2) has visited Iraq many times when compared to Obama who has 1) not served and 2) visited rarely, and not for some time? Does being there really matter? Can one develop and claim expertise from non-experiential research?

Now, before this becomes a stats vs. anthropology argument (as the baseball analogy might portend), I want to suggest that both McCain and Obama have an important point. It is important to be there, but being there alone does not necessarily mean that your evidence, evaluation, and conclusion is any more valid. I’m reminded of an ISA panel I attended, maybe this year, where a number of critical security scholars were discussing the state of the discipline, and one prominent senior member of the panel talked about how important it was to ‘be there,’ to get the mood of the place, to write from that perspective.

Just being there, however, doesn’t mean that you have greater access to “fact” or “Truth” than anyone else. Take McCain in Iraq. He goes on a CODEL. He meets with select troops, who are probably on their best behavior for the famous Senator. He meets with members of the Iraqi government, who probably ask him for stuff, hoping to work the levels of US political power. He tours a marketplace, with a brigade providing security. There’s no way he can get “out” to see the rest of the country, there’s no way he can meet with many of the forward deployed troops out on the FOB—a more representative sample is simply impossible for him. Its just too dangerous (and rightly, not worth the risk to him). Is it important that he goes? Sure. Does this mean that his assessment and evaluation of Iraq is fundamentally superior to Obama’s? Not really.

So, when McCain criticizes Obama, and when those in the “field” criticize those back at the desk, and those who played criticize those who haven’t, they have a very important point to make. Being there does shape and deepen your analysis about certain things in certain ways. But not everything, and not always in the most appropriate way. Just because you were there doesn’t mean you saw the whole picture while you were. Just because you were there doesn’t mean you paid attention to the things you later comment on as an expert. Just because you were “there” doesn’t mean that you are able to understand how “there” is now relevant “here.”

In the social sciences, we arbitrate these disputes with our methodology. We ask—what did you do while you were there, in the field? What did you read while sitting in your office? The methodology gives us a standard for what counts as enough knowledge about a thing or place on which to offer meaningful analysis.

In the campaign, it looks like we might have “We’re winning, can’t you see?” vs. “You were wrong then and you’re wrong now.”


Foreign Policy and Presidential Elections: Appeasement Part Deux

How do electoral politics influence US foreign policy? Look no farther than Miami Dade County and US relations with Cuba. Cuban-Americans remain a highly mobilized electoral block in that state’s largest county, and they tend to be single-issue voters, supporting the candidate who is tough on Fidel’s Cuba. So, you have a history of candidates talking about the need to crack down on Castro to curry favor in the Cuban community and put Florida in play. Do a few hundred more votes in Florida really matter? Well, since 2000, making this point is like shooting fish in a barrel. Recall that Clinton signed the Libertad Act in early 1996 on his way to re-election, winning Florida.

So of all the countries that McCain could accuse Obama of “appeasing,” its not surprising to see at the top of the list Iran (stoke fears of terrorism, still a Republican strong issue), closely followed by… Cuba. Yes, McCain is now saying that Obama’s statements that he would consider loosening the Embargo and initiate talks with the Cuban Government constitutes appeasement. We’ve already been over why McCain’s statement is nonsense. But, given electoral politics, is it any surprise why he’d try to bring Cuba into play?

Or, put differently, you’d have to wonder if the Republican party was already dead (and maybe they already are…)* if they didn’t play the appease Cuba card.

*Really, this parenthetical is an excuse to link to the Packer article that is a very good read on the state of conservativism in America–it is worth a read and deserves its own post, but I just couldn’t resist tossing in the link.


You Can’t Appease Chris Matthews

If you haven’t heard about or seen the clip of Chris Matthews dressing down one of his guests, a conservative talk show host, you might wan to take a look. Aside from the sheer entertainment value of the thing, it might, maybe, be a turning point for the fall election.

Matthews was in his regular Hardball segment where they have a conservative and a liberal radio talk show host to spin the issue of the day. They were discussing the Foreign Policy back and forth between Bush and Obama. The conservative guest launched into Obama as soon as Matthews started the segment, talking about how Obama would be horrible for the country because he was an “appeaser.” Annoyed, Matthews asked him if he knew what appeasement meant—in particular, what did Chamberlain do that was so wrong in 1938? The guy finally had to admit he didn’t know, and Matthews schooled him on some pre-WWII history. I don’t think the liberal guest got to say any more than when you’re in a hole, stop digging. It is high political theater, or, cable news at its worst.

At the core of the discussion was the deployment of “Appeasement” to delegitimate the foreign policy of an opponent. In this case, the accusation was that Obama’s position to talk to foreign leaders with who the US has policy differences would appease them, weakening the US and emboldening America’s enemies. Appeasement, as the Lesson of Munich, has a long been one of the most important analogies used in defining, evaluating, and legitimizing foreign policy choices. Rodger’s post has an excellent discussion of the use and mis-use of the concept, and I recommend you check it out.

What Matthews did was to call the conservative on his mis-use of the term. Rather than simply allow his deployment of the appeasement trope remain unchallenged, Matthews asked: what was it that Chamberlain did that was so objectionable? Its comical to watch the guest stammer and stall, like a student who hasn’t done the readings for class, before Matthews finally gives the class the answer: Appeasement came not from talking to Hitler, but from giving him half of Czechoslovakia. Talking to the enemy is not appeasement. Giving the enemy what he or she wants with no significant concession in hope that the enemy is thus satisfied, that is appeasement.

The Matthews moment means that it may be, might be harder in the future to use such analogies so far out of context. He created an opening to challenge the deployment of such broad analogies and labels, and has forced those who want to use labels such as appeasement to augment their statements by adding the offending act. Now, this could all be for naught, if everyone lets it drop, but it could also be a subtle but important shift in the way this powerful label is used. To pass the Matthews test, anyone on his show now needs to show the dangerous concession. Matthews had defined a rhetorical space in which simply talking to another actor cannot constitute appeasement, and anyone who tries to suggest as much will look like a fool.

Now, this is by no means guaranteed. Matthews could let it drop (but I doubt it, given his tenacity on issues such as this). Moreover, MSNBC has become a much more important player in election coverage (really, its gotten quite good. Olberman is in rare form, Matthews is always fun, and its impossible to top Rachel Maddow). So, if Obama’s opponents want to deploy the appeasement label for him, they are going to have to figure out how to go on Hardball and make it stick. Otherwise, the attack loses some of its steam.

Yet another reason that MSNBC has become must-see TV.


Narrating the Democratic Primary

An interesting thing happened late Tuesday night and into early Wednesday morning. The narrative that had driven the Democratic Presidential primary contest unraveled before our eyes and a new narrative was cast.

Going into the Tuesday primaries in IN and NC, the story was Obama has the lead, Hillary is making a move, and they will probably split the two states with the contest continuing on through June 3. And, the predicted outcome did in fact come to pass. Obama won NC, and Hillary won IN. And yet, it was how they won and how those ‘victories’ were given meaning that shifted the narrative. Over the course of several conversations between Chris Matthews and Tim Russert, Wolf Blitzer and John King, the story of the race was taken apart and re-told, and the race took on a new meaning.

Two important things happened.

First, Obama is now the presumptive nominee. The math really didn’t change all that much. The candidates haven’t really changed what they are doing (both are still continuing to campaign). But, once Russert said it, it was so. Its not because Tim Russert is all powerful and can re-shape American politics, on MSNBC no less. Rather, its because Russert and his media colleagues started a new narrative that rapidly took hold not just in the media but the blogosphere and everywhere else people talk politics.

Second, the so-called split in the party that the so-called divisive primary battle was creating instantly healed. Both Obama and Clinton gave speeches chock-full of appeals to the party faithful, contrasting their positions not with each other, but with the Republicans and McCain. And people picked up on these themes, discussing how the repairing of the party had begun. The story moved to how Democrats would deal with McCain, not how the two Democratic candidates were splitting from each-other.

This episode should serve to remind us of two things. First, campaigns, like all politics, are narrative events. You win the nomination politically by establishing the narrative of “winner.” The rest follows (delegates, the actual nomination). Second, these narratives are highly unstable and can shift rapidly. Indeed, the hard work is to get any one narrative to stick around long enough to shape a race and produce electoral outcomes. The surprise is not that the race changed so fast, but that it was anchored in a particular narrative for so long. Each campaign throws out a campaign narrative each and every day, and most of them fall flat on their face—they are lucky to survive a news cycle or two. The Obama – Clinton stand-off story seemed to last for quite a while, despite the delegate counts, primary victories (and losses), and such. The story lasted long enough to seem “the way things are,” and started to drive other narratives out of play. And yet, in one night, those participating in and following this race dropped the old narrative in favor of the other, and things suddenly shifted, and that which was seemingly so strongly entrenched vanished.

Its kind of like the end of the cold war, in a slightly different context. Imagine if there were more relational, discourse-oriented political scientists doing American Politics.

(as a parenthetical, I never put much faith in the Discord among Democrats story. If you remember, that same story was told about the Republicans way back when. Oh, the Romney people hate McCain. Conservatives don’t see McCain as a ‘real’ Republican. Well, guess what—McCain won the context and started running against all things Hillary, and guess what, the party closed ranks behind him. My guess is that Democrats will do the same—once the contest is over, the party will come together and realize that it really doesn’t want a McCain presidency, and support whoever wins. Of course, that depends on someone ‘winning….’)

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