Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Predicting Minnesota’s Gubernatorial Primary Turnout

            What factors influence primary turnout in Minnesota’s gubernatorial elections and what will the turnout be for both the Republican and Democratic parties this August?  Both of these questions are on minds of politicos as predictions mount in anticipation of the August 14, results.  The simple answer is that no one knows, but there are indications that the drivers of turnout in gubernatorial primaries have little to do with state politics or races and instead reflect national trends and moods in politics.
            Past performance does not guarantee future results.  This is true both for stock markets and politics.  Yet past performance provides insights into what might happen in 2018.  The attached table and chart look at Democrat and Republican Party primary turnout for the last six gubernatorial elections.   During this time there have been several changes in Minnesota election law or politics that potentially affect turnout, thereby making it difficult to isolate anyone factor.   Consider some factors.  (text continues below)

Primary Voter Turnout:  GOP and DFL Gubernatorial Race
Total Voted Governor
Total Eligible
Percentage DFL/GOP Governor
1994 September
1998 September
2002 September
2006 September
2010 August
2014 August
2018 August*
* Estimated

            First, note that from 1994 to 2014 the general trend has been for primary turnout to go down.  In 1994 nearly 32% of the eligible voters cast primary votes for a DFL or GOP gubernatorial, decreasing to barely 12% in 2014.  Granted that between those two dates there was one uptick in voting in 2010, but overall the trend line is for fewer and fewer people to show up to cast a primary ballot.  Perhaps this decline reflects a decreasing percentage of the electorate identifying as a Democrat or Republican. 
            For example, in 1994 polls listed 42% as self-identified independents, increasing to 51% by 2014.  Declining partisan affiliation thus might be one factor; however it certainly cannot count for nearly a drop of two-thirds in primary percentage turnout.  Moreover, the high number of independents masks the actual ways that people vote where many of those individuals who eschew party labels nonetheless vote reliably for one of the two major parties, especially in the last generation as partisanship and polarization have increased.
            A second possibility explaining the decrease is the shift from a September to August primary.  While it too may have some effect, it may be minor.  Even before 2010 when the first August primary occurred the general trend was down.  Moreover, the only election since 1994 when the primary participation increased was in 2010–the first year that an August primary occurred.
            A third possibility is that closely contested and (media) covered primaries produce higher turnout.  Again, this is not the case.  In 1994, for example, the Republican primary had very high turnout, but it was really no contest as incumbent Arne Carlson won big.  Similarly, in 1998 and 2002 where there was no incumbent running in either the GOP or DFL primaries, the numbers do not show that open seats that are presumably more contested produce more voter interest.  The one exception is the 2010 DFL primary that featured three well-known and funded candidates–Mark Dayton, Margaret Anderson Kelliher, and Matt Entenza–spending heavily in a closely contested race.  Again, it should not come as a surprise that state and local races are not major drivers of voter turnout–in general voting in these elections is far lower than for the presidential.
            Fourth, perhaps early voting impacts turnout.  The idea of allowing for no-excuses early voting is to make casting a ballot more convenient and therefore increase turnout.  The first gubernatorial election with this type of voting was 2014, filing to show an increase in overall state turnout.  Again, this is consistent with research suggesting that early voting does not necessarily increase overall turnout, it merely stretches voting out over a longer period of time.
            So what might drive primary turnout?  Look more closely at 1994 and 2010. Both of those dates are notable as particularly intense and polarized elections.  Both took place during the first midterm elections after the election of presidents in 1992 (Bill Clinton) and 2008 (Barack Obama).  Both elections saw intense interest in national elections that produced change overs in partisan control of Congress.  Perhaps–and this should not be a unexpected–turnout in state elections in Minnesota and elsewhere is informed by public awareness and interest in national elections.  Such a conclusion is consistent with political science research on variables impacting voter turnout.
            So what might all this say about 2018 turnout?  It too is coming during the first midterm election after the election of a new president.  Polls suggest nationally and in Minnesota voters, especially Democrats, are energized and excited about politics, mostly because of their dislike for Trump.  Assuming turnout in local primaries is related to national interest in politics expect to see turnout increase in this primary.  Even though there is little evidence that early voting or contested races impact turnout, both are present here, perhaps facilitating slightly turnout.
            Given the above, what can we guess (not predict?) regarding 2018 gubernatorial turnout for the two major parties?  As of May 1, 2018, the Secretary of State listed 3,246,893 as eligible to vote in Minnesota.  By August 14, that number will increase, so assume 3,250,000 eligible voters.  Given intensively in national elections, early voting and contested elections, 190,000 and 435,000 voters will cast ballots in the respective Republican and Democratic Party primaries, leading to a total of 625,000 voters or 19.2% overall turnout.
            Broken down even more, for the Democrats, assume that in a three-way race 40% is needed to win the primary, 174,000 is the bare minimum needed for victory.    For the Republicans (even though there are three candidates on the primary ballot), assume a two-way race between Tim Pawlenty and Jeff Johnson and 50% +1 or 87,001 is the minimum threshold for victory given the estimates here.  Of course no candidate should aim for these minimums, with a better strategy being for a DFL candidate to aim for at least 200,000 and the GOP 100,000 as sufficient margin or errors if turnout is higher than predicted.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Justice Kennedy and the Myth of the Legal Neutrality

There is a powerful yet enduring myth in America that was shattered as the Supreme Court closed out its 2017 term.  That myth is that law and politics are separate, or at least that the law can constrain political choices.  With 5-4 decisions upholding President Trump’s travel ban, striking down mandatory public sector union fees, and the resignation of Justice Kennedy, that myth has all but collapsed.
The myth of the law was well described by nineteenth century writer Alexis DeTocqueville, who declared in Democracy in America  that:   “There is hardly a political question in the United States which does not sooner or later turn into a judicial one.”  This quote captures two aspects of the myth of law.  First, that at some point all political questions in America eventually turn into legal ones capable of resolution by the courts.  Second, judicial resolution of controversies means that the law  is capable of addressing political disputes, perhaps even permanently, if the decision was made on constitutional grounds.
This myth has played out several ways across American history.  One has been in assuming that the Supreme Court stands above politics and that when it decides it does so on the basis of what the law says, not ideology.  As Chief Justice John Marshall said in Marbury v. Madison, perhaps the most important case in American law: “It is emphatically the province and duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is.”
The other way it has played out is in many groups placing faith in the judiciary as the guardian or protector of their rights.  They did so because they did not trust  real politics, such as elections and voting, as they way to secure t heir political objectives.  Again to quote another Justice, here Robert Jackson in West Virginia v. Barnette in writing the majority opinion striking down a law mandating the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance: “One’s right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.”   Law stands in opposition to politics, the former constraints that latter, making the judiciary the ultimate protector of abortion, gay, minority, and free speech rights.
Yet the increasing reality is that the law is not above politics, and the judiciary does not use it to resolve political questions, but instead decisions are political themselves.  Political science research  shows that more often than not votes by individual Justices reflect their personal political beliefs. In recent history, the best predictor of how individual Justices will vote is to look at which president appointed them.  In my own research on Justice Scalia, one could show clear biases in decisions based on the issue presented or the litigants in the case.  All of the above is similarly true with the current members of the Supreme Court.
But until 2000 the Supreme Court was able to manage its reputation and hide behind the myth of law.   But when in Bush v. Gore the Supreme Court decided the outcome of the presidential race, public opinion significantly split over it and it has widened since.  Surveys suggest declining confidence in the Supreme Court’s neutrality, and increasing Justices to many look more like politicians in robes.  Chief Justice Roberts, who said in his confirmation hearing that “My job is to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat,” looks like the manager of one political team of four  Justices playing against another team of four, dueling for the swing Justice Anthony Kennedy to pitch or hit for their team.
In his tenure on the Court Kennedy was the critical vote in cores of 5-4 cases.  In most years he was in the majority 90% of the time, and in  5-4 decisions, some years 100%.  For the last 30 years it has been Justice Kennedy’s court, as he held the balance of power and restrained the most extreme ideologies.  But even he revealed his biases.  In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission the Supreme Court signaled after initial oral arguments that it wanted to decide a broader case than originally presented.  When it finally decided the case it ruled in favor or corporate free speech rights, seeing efforts to regulate corporations as censorship.  And now in Janus v. AFSCME, it ruled against unions, with Kennedy casting the critical fifth vote.
Scalia’s death, the delay in preventing President Obama from appointing a successor, Trump’s appointment of Neil Gorsuch, and now Kennedy’s retirement and the politics of his replacement only have or will exacerbate the demythologizing of the law, especially, and which is likely, Justices continue to vote ideologically as political science research suggests.  This is bad because  one of the last realms  where polarization and politics had not tainted government may be gone, leaving the public without any checks on the extremism that has marked contemporary politics.
Perhaps the only bright side may be recognition of the limits on constitutionalizing politics.  By that, one lesson that may be learned is that the judiciary is not the best or final place to turn advance a political agenda.    Elections matter, and groups may have to resort to the ballot box and politics to achieve power and protect their rights or advance their interests, and not rely upon the courts to do so.
Note:  This blog originally appeared in Counterpunch.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Neo-Liberalism and the Retreat of Democracy

This blog originally appeared in Counterpunch.

Democracy across the world is under siege. This according to the latest Freedom House report documenting that for 2017, “democracy faced its most serous crisis in decades” as  seventy-one countries experienced declines in freedom or fair government, including the United States,  and only thirty-five an improvement.  This was the twelfth consecutive year of decline in democracy world-wide.

The question is why? Why has confidence in democracy retreated? Freedom House does not provide an answer, but there is a reason.   It is democracy’s marriage to neo-liberal capitalism has fostered the conditions leading to its own undoing, similar to the way Karl Marx once described in the Communist Manifesto the “gravedigger thesis” (What the Bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all,  are its own grave diggers”) where capitalism would produce the conditions that would undermine its own existence.

From the 1960s until the early 1990s democracy was in the upswing internationally.  African de-colonization produced initially popularly elected governments.  In South America the demise of strongmen led to a wave of democratic regimes.  And the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the break up of the USSR in 1991 produced the dismantling of communist authoritarian or totalitarian governments that made it possible for Francis Fukuyama to proclaim that democracy had won and emerged as the last grand global political meta-narrative.

Yet several problems upset this rosy picture. Most prominently, it was  the marriage of these new emerging democracies with free market capitalism and the victory of neo-liberalism.  Internationally as post-colonial and post-communist countries emerged, international organizations such as the World Bank and the IMF forced them to adopt market reforms, often pushing them into what was then called “shock therapy.”  Shock therapy involved rapid privatization of state owned enterprises and rapid dismantling of welfare states.  This shock therapy was often accompanied by significant  corruption as a few rich oligarchs emerged who came to own these newly  privatized state enterprises.

Simultaneously, emerging democracies were rapidly pushed into what sociologist  Immanuel Wallerstein would call the world-capitalist system. This system turned politically to right in the 1970s and 1980s as  Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom and Ronald  Reagan in the United States  pushed neo-liberalism  or market fundamentalism as an alternative to the Keynesian welfare state that had dominated the west since the 1930s.  It was adopted both for ideological reasons and because of what political economist James O’Connor would call the fiscal crisis of the state tht affect economics across the world in the 1970s.  This was a crisis of declining profit among private businesses and therefore declining revenue for states to fund welfare programs.  Something had to give, and it was the welfare state.

Neo-liberalism is a political economic theory of the state  committed to the laissez-faire market fundamentalism ideology that traces back to Adam Smith and David Ricardo.  It includes a belief in comparative advantage, a minimalist state, and market freedom, and is, as articulated in the 1990s and 2000s, driven by finance capital.  At the state level, neo-liberalism defines a theory of public administration.  If neo-liberalism includes a commitment to market fundamentalism, then that also means that it is dedicated to a politics of limited government.  This includes privatization, deregulation, and a scaling back of many traditional functions that capitalist and communist states had performed since at least World War II. But neo-liberalism as a theory transcends the state, providing also an international economic theory committed to free trade and globalism.

This emergence of neo-liberalism in the 1970s and its linkage to democracy is central to the crisis affecting the latter.  As  neo-liberalism retrenched the welfare state and pushed globalism it was accompanied by a dramatic increase in economic in equality in the world, as Thomas Piketty has pointed out.  This occurred in the US and much of the western world.  But it also impacted newly emerging democracies in Africa, Eastern Europe, and South America.  Pressures for shock therapy market reforms, austerity, and open borders meant export of jobs to other countries, dismantling of social safety nets, and other economic pressures placed on governments and ruling parties.

Politically voters turned on globalism and free trade.  This happened here with Trump voters in 2016, but also in Brexit in the UK. But many voters also blamed immigrants for the loss of jobs or social unrest in places ranging from France, to Italy, to Hungary.   The increasing economic gap between rich and poor and, more importantly, the erosion of the economic conditions of the working class soured them on democracy.  This paved the way for the emergence of strongmen as political leaders, the rise of far-right nationalist parties, and disenchantment with democracy and democratic structures to deliver the economic goods.

What we see today then in terms of the decline in support for democracy across the world is a product of its marriage to neo-liberalism.  Capitalism and democracy always had an uneasy co-existence, but the  neo-liberal democracy variant  demonstrates the powerful contradictions in them.  Either their linkage is producing outright rejection of democracy or a populist, rightist version that is merely democracy in form but not in substance.

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Trump Presidency and Foreign Policy

Often the best predictor of a new US president’s foreign policy is to look at his predecessor.  The
strength and bipartisan nature of the American foreign policy establishment since World War II generally assures consistency and continuity across presidential administrations.
Yet every president leaves an imprint on foreign policy.  For Barack Obama it was the Asian pivot, George Bush the War on Terror, with Bill Clinton it was the Middle East Peace (Oslo) Accords, and for George H.W. Bush it was the first Gulf War.  But what is Trump’s foreign policy imprint or doctrine?  Pejoratively the media recounts an official who declares it to be “We’re America, bitch,” but is there something more coherent or deeper than this phrase that has been designed or emerged?  Despite skeptics who argue that the Trump doctrine is one of incoherence  and whim, a Trump doctrine has actually emerged, based on Trump’s own sense of how to do business as a dealer.   Trump’s world view shares  some characteristics of his predecessors yet also it leaves a unique imprint whose impact has already changed–for good or bad–American foreign policy and world politics.
American foreign policy since the end of World War II has rested on three pillars.  The first has been military and nuclear superiority.  Throughout the Cold War and after, the goal has always been to maintain a military strength sufficient to deter communism, defend the free world or democracy, fight two wars, deter nuclear war, or lead the fight against the war on terrorism.
The second pillar has been diplomacy.  Diplomacy is broader than simply setting up ambassadorships, it is negotiating treaties and alliances that are often multilateral.   It is creating  rules for international trade and dispute resolution.  It is constructing the framework for what Henry Luce called the emergence of the “American Century.”  Diplomacy is about using American soft power to create a world hospitable to US interests, including democratic and free market values.  Soft power also includes cultural values and ideas.  In many ways, American culture and values–perhaps the Hollywoodization of the world–is the single greatest export of the United States and it is a valuable tool that affects public opinion across the world.
The third pillar is economics.  The US maintained the largest economy in the world and its sheer size gave it muscle across the globe.  American capitalism, coupled with it diplomatic skills in forging free trade and other economic agreements, fashioned a world where America dominated. It may not have been the case the US had a positive trade balance with every nation, but collectively the economic world order formed after WW II favored the United States, making it the most prosperous nation on Earth.
Collectively these three pillars were an “America first” doctrine.  Yet  how American first was defined meant that the US would pursue its interests across these three pillars not just in the short but long term.  It was also a foreign policy that was statist; by that it was built on crafting alliances with specific states and not specific regimes or leaders.  US interests were best preserved by forging relationships with strategic countries, often without regard to who was leading them.  Finally, the US would seek to leverage overall world influence through bi- and multilateral agreements and alliances, and that it would cooperate with other states as part of a broader strategy to maintain US supremacy across the world.
These three pillars defined an America first foreign policy that held together the US foreign policy establishment across presidents since the 1940s.  Yes each president would imprint or change it to adapt to evolving world conditions such as the end of communism, the rise of terrorism, or the emergence of China and Asia as major economic players.  But collectively no post World War II president has rejected the basic goals or pillars that forge US foreign policy strategy.
The Trump presidency displays continuity and discontinuity. No debate that he buys into America first, this after all is what “Make America Great” is about.  But his sense of how to secure America’s interest is different from recent presidents in several ways–it is short term, personal, bilateral, and de-emphasizes diplomacy and soft power.
Trump agrees with the two pillars of military superiority and economic nationalism, but he applies especially the latter in ways  unique from recent presidents.  Specifically, he views the economics not collectively in terms of how the US does overall, but evaluates US relationships on a bilateral county-by-county basis.  Trump appears to want to win every negotiation and views any situation where a country has a positive balance of trade with the US as an unfair agreement.  He seems to think that the US needs to export more goods than import from every country.  Of course, such a approach fails to appreciate the economics of international trade and comparative advantage.  Second, Trump does not like multinational trade deals and prefers to do one-one-ones.  This suggests that he does not see linkages across issues or how international economics or politics is more than bilateral or how in many cases, a deal with one nation is connected to another. 
For example, his actions with the North Korea (DPRK) and halting the military exercises fail to appreciate the concerns of domestic security for South Korea, and on any deal with the DPRK is connected to regional issues that involve also China and Japan.   Economically, all relationships with a Trump foreign policy are zero-sum games.  By that, Trump expects the US to win with every state America deals.  No country–including allies–seems to be given any preference.   
Trump’s foreign policy does break with the third pillar-diplomacy and soft power.   Trump’s focus is simply not on using it or any form of soft power when it comes to furthering US interests.  With both friends and foes it is bullying approaching, person threats lodged against other leaders. Trump is also not interested in furthering human rights and democracy and he seems to like autocratic leaders.   His foreign policy is personal, as with Kim Jong-Un of North Korea, and not statist.  His preference for the art of the deal is based on traditional theories of business negotiations that stress the personal.  And like many business deals, they are discretely transactional and not necessarily part of building longer term relations.  Yet despite Trump not emphasizing soft power,  the US still commands a presence in the world and its actions as well as that of its presidents send cultural signals and messages across the world.
What does all this mean for US foreign policy?  Trump has already made an impact.  He has pulled the US out of the Paris Accords, the Iran Nuclear Agreement, the Trans Pacific Partnership, and U.N. Human Rights Council.  Look to see the US exit or weaken other multilateral agreements alliances over the  course of the rest of the Trump presidency.   Second, Trump’s rejection of soft power, diplomacy, and human rights parallels and enables the erosion of democratic norms across the world that groups such as Freedom House have recently documented.   Third, his economic bilateralism will continue to spark trade wars and economic sanctions among the US and its partners.  Fourth, his bilateralism, short- term, winner-take-all approach will challenge the basic world order that the United States has created for itself over the last 70 years.  Perhaps this was a world order already collapsing for many reasons, but Trump’s foreign policy does little to construct a larger world order over the long term that favors America’s longer term interests or builds alliances favorable to American interests.  Pulling out of so many multilateral agreements opens a void for other states such as China to fill.  America was powerful because it was a player, it was always there and not taking its ball and bat and going home.
None of the above seems likely to help sustain or create “America’s second century” or make it great again.  Yet this is what the Trump doctrine is doing.  Faced with major challenges in the world, Trump’s foreign policy is not so much that of a dominant and ascending power, but one pulling back, limiting its influence and range of tolls for one that is less grand in scope than those  characteristic of the last 70 years.  Maybe it is impossible for the US to maintain the hegemony it enjoyed since WW II, and if so, maybe the Trump doctrine recognizes that, or alternatively, it hastens the commencement of a world where that is true.

Note:  This is the first draft of possibly a longer piece I may do on the Trump presidency and foreign policy.  I am still working  out ideas at this time so pardon any errors or mistakes.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Less than Fundamental: The Myth of Voting Rights

The Supreme Court’s recent Husted v. Philips Randolph Institute upholding Ohio’s voter purge law and Minnesota Voter Alliance v. Mansky striking down Minnesota’s political apparel ban are only latest cases declaring war on voting rights.  These cases are part of the second great disenfranchisement in American politics.  Like the first one after the end of Reconstruction, this one too aims to rig the election process, entrenching one set of interests in power.
The story of voting rights in America is one of exceptionalism.  In 1787 when the US Constitution was  drafted the right to vote was absent from the text.   The Constitution then (and still to this day because the Electoral College actually picks the president) did not a grant a right to vote for president, senators were chosen by the state legislatures, and while members of the House of Representatives could be selected by the people, who could vote was a matter of state law, with franchise generally limited to property-owning white males, at least 21 years old, who were citizens and members of a church or particular faith.
The traditional story of voting rights in America tells how franchise and democracy expanded over time.  First in the 1820s states started dropping property requirements to vote and began allowing qualified individuals the right to pick the electors who selected the president.    Then there would be the story of the adoption of Fifteen, Nineteenth, and twenty-sixth Amendments granting the right to vote to freed male slaves, women, and eighteen-year-olds.  There would also be the story of the Seventeenth Amendment allowing for direct popular vote of senators, the Twenty Fourth Amendment eliminating the poll tax, and the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, and the 1965 Voting Rights expanding voting rights to Native-Americans and people of color.  These amendments and laws, along with Supreme Court cases such as US v. Classic and Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, are part of an election law canon supposedly guaranteeing the right to vote as fundamental.
Except the right to vote in the United State is less than fundamental. The other side of the story of voting rights in America is how tenuous and contingent franchise is, and how much pressure there has also been to restrict it.  The United States is the only country in the world that still does not have in its Constitution an explicit clause  affirmatively granting a right to vote for all or some of its citizens.
The 15th, 19th, and 26th Amendments do not actually grant an affirmative right to vote–they merely prevent denial of franchise on account of race, gender, or age. One consequence of this less than fundamental right is that the US has one of the lowest rates of voting among democracies in the world.  Voting is stratified by race, class, and gender.  While most legal restrictions in place on franchise in 1787 have been eliminated, in reality the profile of those who vote today is almost identical to what it was back then.
With each push to expand franchise a counterpunch responded to contract it.  During the first  great enfranchisement after the Civil War, Congress enacted civil rights legislation and adopted constitutional amendments during Reconstruction in order to establish voting rights for freed male slaves.  It worked–electing many blacks to state and federal office–until Reconstruction ended in 1877 and the Jim Crow Era commenced.  Tools as explicit as lynchings were deployed to dissuade African-Americans from voting, but so too were felon disenfranchisement laws, poll taxes, literacy  tests, and grandfather laws.  These techniques successfully wipe out the right to vote for many for nearly another century.
But then the second great enfranchisement occurred during from the 1950s to 1970s.  Once  the 1965 Voting Rights Act and its subsequent amendments along with the  1993 Motor Voter Act began to make an impact, the backlash began. The first great disenfranchisement was a partisan affair pushed by Democrats.  This time it is Republicans.
It began with cries of voter fraud, even though there is no credible evidence that in-person  fraud at the polls is a serious problem.  The Supreme Court endorsed voter ID laws in its 2008 Crawford v. Marion County, and now 34 states have photo requirements.  These ID requirements are especially hard on the poor, people of color, new citizens, and the elderly; many of these groups lean Democrat.  In its 2013 Shelby County v. Holder the Court declared part of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional, embolden states to take action such as closing polling places or cutting back on early voting.  And way back in 1974 the Court endorsed ex-felon disenfranchisement laws in Richardson v. Ramirez, stripping away the right to vote to millions of individuals, many of whom are poor and people of color.  Over time other limits on voting have been adopted by states, and the Court has come to accept them as routine and reasonable administrative regulations, failing to look at the impact the rules have on the voter.
Now we have  Husted v. Philips Randolph Institute and Minnesota Voter Alliance v. Mansky.  Supporters of these laws will say that these decisions either disenfranchise few, are necessary to prevent fraud, or protect free speech.  But they also put more burdens on voters to ensure they are registered to vote or require them to endure more pressure when they enter the ballot box to vote.   Voting has become an individual struggle–fighting both against the government and others to cast a ballot.  You are essentially on your own to figure out how to vote, and it appears the government will do little to help you.  No surprise that Justice Roberts in his Mansky majority opinion refers to the days of the nineteenth century when voting “was akin to entering an open auction place... where [c]rowds would gather to heckle and harass voters who appeared to be supporting the other side.”
Such a scene was intimidating.  This is what voting is turning into again.  Casting a vote is becoming again  an act of courage, meant not for the faint-hearted.  Whatever the election law fiction  is, the right to vote now is less than fundamental.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Trump, Kim and the Art of the (Non) Deal

Note:  I will be in South Korea in July attending and speaking at two conferences.  One is on the 70th anniversary of the South Korean Constitution and it is sponsored by the National Assembly.  The other conference is sponsored by the South Korean Election Commission.

What are we to make of the Trump-Kim summit?  It was far less than meets the eye from  a global standpoint, although it was terrific theater for Trump and Kim.  However, the real winner was North Korea (Democratic Republic of North Korea or DPRK) while the United States got little, and US allies such as South Korea and Japan even less.

The summit was never destined to accomplish much.  Good summits require advanced planning and often there are a lot of agreements reached in advanced such that the actual summit is really a photo op that is the culmination of what had been already scripted.  Thus, summits are deals plus public.  Here one got all publicity and no deals–all show and no substance.

The summit had the potential to be a major break through and it still might to lead to something.  Having the two leaders engage in a dialogue may in itself be important, but s of now nothing.  No agreements on cultural exchanges, opening up of diplomatic offices, or anything else.  Compared to other major first meetings–Nixon and Mao in 1972–little was accomplished.

But this summit was never really about improving US-DPRK relations, it was about Kim and Trump.  For Kim, he wins domestically by showing his people he can stand equally with the president of United States.  Be a bad boy, produce a nuclear bomb, and you get what you want.  His position is strengthened domestically by this summit.  Internationally, Kim shows how a country can get what it wants if it goes nuclear and defies international law and rules.

Trump gets his ego stroked.  Domestically he gets to claim his threats drove Kim to the bargaining table.  He gets to argue for the 2018 elections that his way works and playing the bad boy and ignoring the G7, allies, or multilaterialism works.  Trump also gets lots of media coverage.

The meeting between the two leaders alone was historic and significant.  What the new relations between the two countries  mean is yet to be determined.  If the new relationship is bilateral then it is fragile at best. By that, if the security agreements only address US-DPRK needs and fail to address concerns of Japan, South Korea, China, and the Russian Federation, I am not sure what will result.  By that, the US seems to have agreed with DPRK to halt military games with South Korea.  This may make DPRK feel more secure but it is not clear how it addresses security needs for South Korea or even Japan, and it is not clear the US really got anything out of the deal.  Trump wanted a deal to say he got a deal, but if deals involve trading something of value to get something of value, the U got nothing.  Trump trades away US, South Korean and regional security needs to that he can say he got something.  But it is not clear how it addresses larger regional needs.  Moreover, this would not be the first time the DPRK has agreed to things only to cheat.  The art of this deal showed the limits or weaknesses in Trump’s negotiating skills, unless the art was something for him and not the US or the rest of the world.

Will the halt of US-South Korean joint military exercises address DPRK’s security needs?  The claim that North Korea felt insecure in part was always false, used as a prompt for its leaders to justify their regime.  During the Cold War there was no real chance the US was going to attack it, and even after it the US was never going to attack for fear of engaging China and Russia.  In addition, the DPRK came to the table both because it had nuclear capabilities and felt it had a position of strength from which to bargain, and because of economic needs.  In light of the US cancelling the nuclear agreement with Iran, it is difficult to see what kind of security assurances DPRK would want in exchange for giving up it nuclear capabilities.  In turn, if the US were to agree to remove all troops from South Korea it leaves that country with real security concerns.

Overall, the non-deal struck between Kim and Trump does less than the two leaders or the media think.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Minnesota DFL Meltdown: Why it matters, why it is overdue, why it is mostly good

The meltdown of the Minnesota DFL was entirely predictable.  It is  also overdue and mostly good.  The roots of  this implosion  can be located in its failure till now to address significant changes in Minnesota, ranging from structural forces in the state to demographic ones.  But simply the cause is that the DFL failed to gradually reform, forcing an abrupt crisis that is happening now, at a most critical if inopportune time.
The DFL implosion parallels one found with the national Democratic party.  Nationally the Democrats are facing their failures to rebuild the lost New Deal coalition that linked labor unions, working class, and people of color.  Unions are all best decimated and will meet their final fate in a few weeks when the Supreme Court kills them off in Janus v. AFSCME, in part because when given the chance, Obama and the Democrats took them for granted and did nothing to change the law to help them modernize.  Democrats long ago abandoned working class when they became a corporate party chasing Wall Street and rich donors while ignoring the growing gap between the rich and poor in America. Now a new generation expresses disdain for these Reagan and now Trump Democrats, seeing them as ignorant, racists who are not worth courting.  And while yes Democrats still appeal to people of color for votes, how much they really deliver for them versus take their vote for granted is a matter of serious debate.
The crisis of the national Democratic party is one lacking a compelling narrative, it is one  of having a one-size-fits-all campaign strategy well suited to run in urban settings but largely ineffective in rural and often suburban areas.  It is a party facing an existential crisis as the aging Baby Boomers and soon Gen Xers  exit politics and it is unable to talk an agenda relevant  to Millennials and soon Gen Z.  It is a party whose divide and problems surfaced in the 2016 clash between Clinton and Sanders, where many Democrats stayed home because they could not stand to vote for another neo-liberal.  It is a party whose problems are summed up by saying that their rationale or narrative in 2016 was that “We are not Trump,” and who may, if they are lucky, this year, squeak out a victory in 2018 on running against something and not for something.  This is the problem of the national Democrats.  Trump is only the latest external threat to the Democrats, both externally and internally.
The Minnesota DFL faces similar challenges.  It is a party still living in the past, assuming  that the political landscape of the state is the same as it was 20, 30, or 40 years ago when the DFL  was the majority party.  The statistics fail to show that.  It is a Blue state gone Purple and maybe headed Red.  It is a state where the party still pays homage to fallen and past party leaders and lives in their shadow.  Yes Humphrey, Wellstone, McCarthy, and Mondale were great figures, but they represent a different political area.  The Minnesota DFL is an insular party where its one-size-fits-all campaign strategy has reduced its political base to a few  urban cores and no more than maybe 10 or so counties.  It is a party occupied by an ideology of Baby Boomers and some Gen Xers, and it is a party with a leadership looking backwards and not to the future.  It is a party facing an existential crisis.
Political scientist Walter Dean Burnham wrote in his  Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics that every 30 or 40 years American politics and parties are characterized by a critical realignment.  Driven by economic or political crises, American history  demonstrates the need for parties and political to change, forcing changes in party labels, coalitions, and alignments.  For too long too Democrats nationally and the DFL in Minnesota have needed to  critically realign.  Changes in the economy and political changes, driven by racial and generational  demographics, necessitate the DFL to change.  This is what is happening now.
The DFL change began five years ago in Minneapolis with Betsy Hodges.  It was a DFL without the F and L.  Hodges had an opportunity to ride the wave of change but she was simply too inept to manage it.  Jacob Frey and Melvin Carter are a second wave of the change, how they respond is too soon to tell.  Now what has happened over the last few days is another sign of a party torn in lots of directions.  Murphy, Walz, and Swanson at the gubernatorial level represent three wings of the party, three ideologies, and three strategies on how to campaign in the state and forge winning coalitions.  The divide played out at the DFL convention with the fight over the attorney general nomination and subsequent filings for the office, and it plays out in replacing Keith Ellison. 
Much of this is destructive.  Many of the candidates running appear to be in it for themselves and not for the party of state.  Many seem to lack the experience or qualifications for the job, and many in choosing to run seem to have conceded that the State House of Representatives is a lost cause and are abandoning it for higher office.  All of this is unfortunate, coming at a time when control for so  many institutions and levers of powers in Minnesota are at stake. 
But much of this behavior is also understandable.  It comes at a time when the party has sat on reform and change for too many years and where new leaders are demanding that the party reflect  their generation’s interests and needs.  Short term it is not clear how well the DFL navigates  this meltdown, longer term it is too soon to tell the results.   But this meltdown matters, it is overdue, and maybe mostly good.