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Jun. 20 2010 — 11:17 pm | 471 views | 1 recommendations | 5 comments

Announcements and such

A while back, I promised I’d have a big announcement coming, and I do. But first, some quick news. Beginning tomorrow, I’ll be guest-blogging at the Washington Independent. I won’t be cross-posting between the two blogs, but I’ll post links here letting you know when I have stuff up at TWI. I’ll be guest-blogging until the end of next week, so be sure to check there if you need your fix of Jamelle-punditry.

As for the big announcement, beginning July 5th, I’ll be leaving True/Slant and the United States of Jamerica to begin blogging — and writing — for The American Prospect. I’ll provide more information as the move approaches, but it suffices to say that this is something I’m very excited about.

Jun. 17 2010 — 10:11 pm | 101 views | 1 recommendations | 3 comments

Freedom of Choice?

Justin responds to my earlier post excoriating Glenn Greenwald for his forays into punditry. Specifically, he takes issue with my claim that there are serious and abiding differences between the two parties:

While Jamelle responds as if this is ludicrous, I think it’s more right than not when it comes to describing our politics. Where in the two party system do you find opposition to farm subsidies, endless war, police misconduct or indefinite detention? If you’re concerned about the drug war, the bloated defense budget, or unconditional support for Israeli actions, you can at least get scraps from the Democrats.

It’s quite clear that there are many issues where there is no meaningful choice between the two parties. On many others, we are left with only marginal differences. True, Greenwald errs by saying that there his point stands regardless of the issues you’re concerned about–he’s just wrong about most of the issues that Jamelle cites (healthcare, labor and environmental law). But that’s no reason to dismiss him out of hand. It’s a reason to qualify his point, and arguably a reason to support the Democrats. But if it’s a reason to support them, it’s a reason to do it through gritted teeth.

Admittedly, I may have been a little unreasonable in my criticism of Greenwald. And truth be told, I don’t actually disagree with Justin; on issues that fall outside the left-right axis, or issues that don’t have an obvious constituency, there is a fair amount of congruency between the two parties. Still, I can’t help but feel annoyed by the assertion that there are few meaningful differences between the two parties. Not only is it less true than it sounds (compare the last three Republican presidencies to the last three Democratic ones), but it doesn’t do anything to help. At this moment, and for the foreseeable future, the Democratic Party is the only real vehicle for the legislative advancement of liberal goals. Yes, it’s imperfect, and yes there will be times when you’ll have to vote for Democratic candidates “through gritted teeth”, but given the sheer size and diversity of the “Left” in this country, it’s unlikely that we’ll find a better alternative. At this point in our history, pursuing meaningful liberal change means working with in the system we have, not the system we want.

Beyond that, the truth is that it’s very, very hard to get people politically involved. The status quo is hard to resist, and most people don’t want to rock the boat. The more we demonize the two-party system and cry “no difference”, the more likely it is that people will give in to despair and give up on politics altogether. Of course, this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try to imagine new political arrangements; we can discover what’s wrong by thinking about what can be different. But when it comes to activism, I really don’t see the use in heightening the similarities and eliding the differences between the two parties.

Jun. 17 2010 — 1:32 pm | 1,833 views | 2 recommendations | 12 comments

Poor-Bashing: the New American Pastime


When I was guest-blogging for Matt Yglesias a few weeks ago, I wrote a post criticizing the Washington Post’s Robert Samuelson for his claim that cell phones are indicative of rising living standards among the poor. I argued that cell phones are both very cheap — cheaper than a landline, in fact — and essential to navigating the world of low-wage service jobs. Without some way to contact employers (or vice-versa), it’s nearly impossible to find a job. Well, it seems that Samuelson isn’t alone in his belief that cell phones are an unnecessary “luxury” for the poor and working class. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports on an ongoing argument over whether better-off phone users should subsidize lower-income people for cell phones:

TracFone Wireless began initiating the phone giveaway in 2008, dubbed by some “welfare wireless” service. It also offers 68 minutes of free talk a month. People who receive food stamps, welfare, or other government assistance can qualify by applying to the company.

Such people are within the range of 100 percent to 150 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, that runs from $22,050 to $33,075 in salary.

The idea that just by paying their phone bills customers are underwriting free phones for the poor rankles people.

“Oh, that’s the ‘Obama-phone,’ ” said Susan Lord, a leader of the conservative tea party movement in South Jersey. “It’s just another way to redistribute the wealth. The poor get helped, and the cost is passed on to working people, who get depressed.”

Matthew Brouillette, president and chief executive officer of the conservative Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg, said his fear was that the free-phone program would be “subsidizing texting and sexting” among the poor.

For people who are instinctively rankled by the sight of a poor person with a cell phone, I think simple ignorance is the culprit. In this world of iPhones and pocket-sized computers, it’s easy to forget that with less than $100, you can buy a fairly reliable phone and minutes for the month.

That said, if you fear “subsidizing texting and sexting among the poor,” your problem isn’t ignorance — or at least not that kind of ignorance — your problem is that you hold a pretty ugly view of the poor and poverty. For these conservatives, poverty is purely the result of individual behavior; if you are poor, you have obviously done something to deserve it, “Of course poor people would use phone-handouts for texting and sexting, they wouldn’t be poor if they didn’t have degenerate habits like communication, or sexual expression.” To repeat, cell phones are not a luxury. But even if they were, there’s nothing about poverty that disentitles you to enjoying your life. If you are one of the few people who don’t need a cell phone, but get one because it would improve your quality of life, that doesn’t make you any less “deserving” of help than someone who chooses to go without. This idea that we should control the pleasure of those on the bottom is both baffling and pretty offensive.

Not to belabor the point, but it really seems like there is a growing callousness and hostility to the poor and disadvantaged in our society. Just yesterday, the Senate voted against cloture for a $77 billion stimulus bill that would have provided needed funds to state and local governments, and extended unemployment benefits. Most of those voting against — like Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson — cited deficit concerns, “I’ve said all along that we have to be able to pay for what we’re spending, $77 billion or more of this is not paid for and that translates into deficit spending and adding to the debt, and the American people are right: We’ve got to stop doing that.” That’s completely misguided, but understandable.

What’s strange, and offensive, is this belief that we should cut unemployment benefits because, in Sen. Diane Feinstein’s words, “how long do you continue [unemployment benefits] before people just don’t want to go back to work at all?” Conservatives have joined in on poor-bashing too; Sen. Orrin Hatch has proposed mandatory drug tests for those receiving unemployment insurance — because everyone knows that unemployed people are drug addicts — and there’s been a recent spate of conservative writers attacking food and nutrition aid to poor kids.

Exactly, the real problem isn’t the long-term unemployment crisis — which could leave a huge class of people without the necessary skills to work — it’s those bums too lazy to save their jobs from the financial crisis. If those people didn’t want to be unemployed, they should have never worked in the first place, and if those kids didn’t want to be hungry, they should have had the wherewithal not to be born so damn poor, or something.

Jun. 17 2010 — 12:40 pm | 420 views | 1 recommendations | 5 comments

The Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Power, a continuing series


If there’s anything interesting about the progressive response to President Obama’s strategy (or lack thereof) on BP and climate change, it’s that its virtually identical to the progressive response to the president’s strategy on health care reform. As with health care, progressives are angry with Obama over his “unwillingness” to get to business and demand legislation from Congress, as if the only barrier to action is President Obama’s will. Here, for instance, is Rachel Maddow’s fantasy version of the speech Obama should have given on Tuesday:

The United States Senate will pass an energy bill. This year. The Senate version of the bill will not expand offshore drilling. The earlier targets in that bill for energy efficiency and for renewable energy-sources will be doubled or tripled.

If Senators use the filibuster to stop the bill, we will pass it by reconciliation, which still ensures a majority vote. If there are elements of the bill that cannot procedurally be passed by reconciliation, if those elements can be instituted by executive order, I will institute them by executive order.

As Jon Chait rightly notes, this is fantastical. Reconciliation is meant for bills that affect the budget in a fairly direct way. The climate change bill doesn’t come close to meeting that standard, and even if it did, Democrats didn’t write reconciliation instructions for the climate change bill. In the real world, you couldn’t pass any of the climate bill through reconciliation, and if you tried, you’d almost certainly have large portions struck out by the Senate parliamentarian. What’s more, the President can’t simply make laws through executive order; insofar that executive orders have force, it’s because they are usually made in pursuance with certain acts of Congress, some of which specifically delegate discretionary power to the president. If Maddow’s “president” can make laws and override Congress, then it’s no wonder she’s disappointed with Obama, who as an actual United States president, can do neither.

Chait smartly points out that this “liberal despair” comes mainly from a cultish view of the presidency. In this view, Congress is a near-ancillary actor, and all initiative and all action comes from the White House. When bills fail, it’s because the president didn’t try hard enough (or didn’t care). Of course, that’s ridiculous; when it comes to domestic policy, U.S presidents are fairly weak actors, and have to contend with a host of constraints, limitations and competing priorities. As Jonathan Bernstein has noted again and again, the president is weak, really.

During the Bush years, Matt Yglesias coined the phrase “Green Lantern theory of Geopolitics” to mock conservatives who believed that willpower was the only limitation in international relations. For those of you who didn’t read comic books growing up, the Green Lantern is a superhero whose ring grants him near limitless power, limited only by the power of his imagination. There are a lot of otherwise-smart liberals who believe that the president is a member of the Green Lantern corps, and that the only thing keeping his agenda from passage is force of will.

For what it’s worth, I think a few things are at play in this warped liberal view of the president (and really, it’s not just liberals, most Americans see the president as some sort of Dune-esque God Emperor): first, there’s simply no popular recognition that the president is a weak constitutional actor. Campaigns are long on presidential promises and short on the recognition that the president is really limited in what he or she can do. And once in office, the president is the most visible person in government, which leads people to assign the most agency to him, even when it’s unwarranted. Moreover, movies and television habitually present the president as the one person who controls everything in government. In most movies, when the president barks orders, they instantly become law. It’s no wonder that most people have an outsized view of presidential authority; most of their exposure comes from 24 and large, ornate presidential addresses.

I’d also add that the optics of President Bush may have changed liberals’ perception of what the president can do. At every turn, we either heard that President Bush was doing “X” thing, or claiming “X” power, and without the context of a unified Republican Congress or a pliant executive branch, it was easy to believe that Bush was accomplishing these things through sheer force of will, when he simply wasn’t. And after Bush, what many liberals really wanted a “liberal Bush,” not realizing that Bush wasn’t nearly as successful as he was portrayed, and that the president isn’t nearly as powerful as they think.

Jun. 15 2010 — 2:12 pm | 129 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Will November be a Democratic ‘bloodbath’?

Jon Chait looks at a new NPR poll focused on battleground states and districts, and concludes that November will be a “bloodbath” for Democrats. Here’s what the poll has to say about the upcoming election:

The results are a wake-up call for Democrats whose loses in the House could well exceed 30 seats. In the named-congressional ballot in the 60 Democratic districts, Democrats trail their Republican opponent, 42 to 47 percent, with only a third saying they want to vote to reelect their member. In the top tier of 30 most competitive seats, the Democratic candidate trails by 9 points (39 to 48 percent) and by 2 points in the next tier of 30 seats (45 to 47 percent). On the other hand, the Republican candidates are running well ahead in their most competitive seats ( 53 to 37 percent). As we saw in the special election in PA-12, Democrats will have to battle on a seat-by-seat basis — that has shifted these kinds of numbers this year.

The effort by individual campaigns will have to push against walls that seem very hard to move at this point. We tested Democratic and Republican arguments on the economy, health care, financial reform and the big picture for the 2010 election. The results consistently favored the Republicans and closely resembled the vote breakdown. Democrats are hurt by a combined lack of enthusiasm and an anti-incumbent tone.

If true, this would signal a complete bloodbath for Democrats across the country. But my hunch is that we should take this poll with a grain of salt. For starters, this poll is a single slice in time, there are no trend lines and we have no idea what these districts looked like at any time during the last six months. It’s entirely possible that these results have been constant and Republicans have always been more enthused than Democrats (which generally, is true). In which case, the picture isn’t nearly as terrible as Chait thinks, since as recently as last month, Democrats were projected to survive midterms with their majority intact.

Moreover, and as the Center for Politics’ Isaac Woods pointed out on Twitter, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (the polling firm) is relying on an odd methodology, choosing supposedly “battleground” districts as opposed to taking a national poll or polling a single district. It’s silly to pull together random districts — each of which may be “in play” for vastly different reasons — and generalize from there a broad conclusion about the electoral landscape.

Granted, I don’t think Democrats should sit on their laurels; things aren’t catastrophic, but they aren’t in good shape either. But they should also try to avoid overreaction. The siren call of Beltway approval has pulled many Democrats into opposing further stimulus and supporting measures for fiscal austerity, which is boneheaded. Right now, their survival depends most on employment numbers; the smart thing to do — politically and economically — is to pump more stimulus into the economy. More jobs means less discontent, and less discontent benefits President Obama and vulnerable congressional Democrats.

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    About Me

    I am a blogger and occasional freelance writer. Usually, you'll find me here, but I occasionally contribute to PostBourgie.com, as well as Spencer Ackerman's blog (when he's away). At my old Wordpress digs, I blogged about progressive politics, public policy, nerdy things and food, and here at True/Slant, I intend to do the same. I'm all about the social media, so feel free to follow me on Twitter: jbouie, or friend me on Facebook (though I might make you wait awhile). And if you'd rather avoid social media, you can always email me at jamelle DOT bouie AT gmail DOT com.

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