Opinion

The Great Debate

New York’s election suggests the waning of identity politics

To most Americans, the results of New York City’s local elections don’t matter much and often shouldn’t. Yes, there are City Hall occupants who manage to command a national stage, notably incumbent Mike Bloomberg, but in the 2013 race there have been no candidates even approaching his stature (or his wealth). The candidate who received the most votes in Tuesday’s primary, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, is unknown outside New York City and until recently not well known inside it.

Yet there is an aspect of the 2013 campaign that might resonate well beyond New York’s five boroughs: voter behavior suggests that the era of identity politics may have ended or at least peaked.

Throughout the modern era, politicians in New York City (and many other places) have seen elections as a competition among voting blocs determined by ethnic and racial identities: African-American, Latino (which until the 1990s in New York City was primarily Puerto Rican), Jewish, white (which can be further broken down into the larger nationalities represented in New York, such as Italian, Irish, etc). Strategic alliances, endorsements, and policy choices could be used to deliver, somewhat reliably, these groups of voters to chosen candidates. As nonwhites became a majority some time in the mid-1980s, and the pool of viable candidates more diverse, most nonwhite voters saw a path of empowerment through supporting one of their own: that is, given a choice, African-American voters would usually vote disproportionately for the African-American candidate, Latino voters for the Latino candidate, and so on. In recent decades, women and LGBT-identified voters also became important self-aware constituencies, although the LGBT vote is difficult to measure and its effects have been seen more on neighborhood races than citywide ones.

As anyone who watched the 2013 Democratic primary debates can attest, the actual policy differences between the Democratic candidates were fairly small, which would seem to provide even more reason for voters to make their choices based on identity politics.

That, however, is decidedly not what happened in Tuesday’s primary. The one female candidate running for mayor, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, garnered only 16 percent of women’s votes. Bill Thompson, the one African-American candidate, received 42 percent of that group’s vote — well below the 76 percent of the African-American vote he received running in the general election against Michael Bloomberg in 2009, and less than half of the 90-plus percent of the black vote received by David Dinkins, the lone African-American candidate in the 1989 primary, who later that year became the city’s first black mayor. Exit-poll sampling may not precisely measure the votes of smaller minorities, but it seems highly likely that the Asian candidate in the race, comptroller John Liu, received only a small portion of the Asian vote and the openly lesbian Quinn lost LGBT voters by 34 percent to de Blasio’s 47 percent.

When Republicans critique Obama, they critique their own policies

To all the vaunted traditions of the absurd partisan charade in Washington, we can now add another: Republicans attacking President Barack Obama for the results of their own policies. Most recently we saw it last Wednesday. No sooner did the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) announce Wednesday morning that our gross domestic product had shrunk by 0.1 percent in the last three months of last year than Republicans began disseminating misleading talking points.

In an instant missive titled “President 0.1%,” the Republican National Committee complained, “Four years and $5.8 trillion later, Obama presides over an anemic economy.” Quoting Reuters, the RNC ominously warned, “The contraction ‘could spur fears of a new recession…” “Anti-growth policies and an anti-business White House produce just that — a lack of growth,” declared Representative Sam Graves, R-Mo., chairman of the House Small Business Committee. “The bottom line is that America’s economy continues to struggle primarily due to President Obama’s penchant for political brinkmanship and the pervasive uncertainty caused by his focus on higher taxes, regulation and Obamacare,” said Representative Kevin Brady, the Texas Republican and incoming chairman of the Joint Economic Committee.

On Friday, we learned that the economy added 157,000 jobs in January, 247,000 jobs in November and 196,000 in December, well above earlier estimates. The GOP was not so eager to discuss that.

No, a nation’s geography is not its destiny

This essay is adapted from Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, published this week. For more from these authors, see their blog.

If you start in the city center of Nogales, Santa Cruz [Arizona] and walk south for a while, at some point you see houses become much more run down, streets turn decrepit. You have crossed the Mexican border into Nogales, Sonora. Though the two cities are made of the same cloth and were once united, now there are sharp differences between the two. Those in the north are about three times as rich, have access to much better health care, stay in school much longer and of course take part in a much more democratic political process than their cousins in the south. The differences between the two halves of Nogales are a micro, tiny version of huge differences in prosperity and living standards we see around the world. Take Mexico as a whole, for example: it has less than one quarter of the GDP per capita of the United States. Take Peru; it has about one seventh of the GDP per capita of the United States. Or take Ethiopia, Haiti, Somalia or the Congo, each of [which] has less than one thirtieth of the GDP per capita of the United States. Our thesis is that these differences are the outcome of different economic and political institutions which lead to very different incentives.

Though history bears out the defining role of institutions in shaping prosperity and poverty, most social scientists and experts have emphasized different factors. One of the most widely accepted alternative theories of world inequality is the geography hypothesis, which claims that the great divide between rich and poor countries is created by geographical differences. Many poor countries, such as those of Africa, Central America, and South Asia, are between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Rich nations, in contrast, tend to be in temperate latitudes. This geographic concentration of poverty and prosperity gives a superficial appeal to the geography hypothesis, which is the starting point of the theories and views of many social scientists and pundits alike. But this doesn’t make it any less wrong.

A caucus-goer’s community

We think of caucus-goers as unduly politically active. But the data suggests they care far more about something closer to home.

By Eitan D. Hersh

The views expressed are his own.


With its endless primetime debates, strange delegate rules, and state-by-state sequential elections, the Presidential nomination season stimulates both intrigue and dismay at the peculiarities of the U.S. election system. And for those of us who reside in states where casting a primary ballot is procedurally identical to casting a general-election ballot, the caucus system used in about a quarter of the states seems particularly odd. What kind of person, we primary-voters might ask, is willing to spend several hours on a winter night voting in a public setting and listening to neighbors bicker about politics?

Pundits (and supporters of candidates who lose caucuses) answer this question in a familiar refrain: extreme political activists dominate the caucuses, which makes them unfair, unrepresentative, and even undemocratic institutions.

The Democrats’ opportunity in the supercommittee’s failure

By Nicholas Wapshott
All opinions expressed are his own.

Thanksgiving, I don’t have to remind you, marks the settling of irreconcilable differences between the early settlers and the original Americans, the burying of the hatchet, as it were, between Christians and heathens. If only this Thanksgiving marked the same.

The Congressional supercommittee that was created to find $1.2 trillion in spending cuts has until November 23, the night before Thanksgiving, to find a way to pay down the national debt. But things look bleak. Former Bill Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles, whose own deficit cutting plan dribbled into the sand, told the committee the prospect of their reaching an agreement is no more than 50-50. If there is going to be any burying of the hatchet this Thanksgiving, it may be deep in someone’s cranium.

The arguments in the committee echo the ill-tempered debate in the summer over extending the federal debt ceiling. As before, the Democrats will only agree to entitlement cuts if the Republicans agree to raise taxes on the wealthy. As tax breaks for the rich have become an article of faith for Republicans, compromise seems unlikely. Intransigence is the order of the day.

Do libertarians like Peter Thiel really want to live in America?

By Sally Kohn
The opinions expressed are her own.

It sounds like “Fantasy Island” meets “The Twilight Zone” — a privately funded island nation created for the sole purpose of escaping government.

In the olden days, corporate titans just hired pricey lawyers and accountants to dodge the watchful eye of government regulation and the law.  But thanks to record economic inequality that has enriched the already-wealthy more than ever, a group of investors has the spare millions to build an entirely man-made ocean-bound nation where they can make the rules up themselves.  It’s Libertarianism 2.0: the final, floating frontier.

In a recent profile by Details magazine, it was revealed that PayPal founder and libertarian activist Peter Thiel has contributed $1.25 million dollars to the Seasteading Institute, a plan hatched by the grandson of free market economist Milton Friedman to establish “new sovereign nations built on oil-rig-type platforms anchored in international waters — free from the regulation, laws, and moral suasion of any landlocked country.” The Details profile explains, “They’d be small city-states at first, although the aim is to have tens of millions of seasteading residents by 2050.”  Already, plans are underway to launch an office complex off the coast of San Francisco next year, adding full-time housing settlements on the island seven years later.

from MediaFile:

Looking beyond Schiller’s signoff from NPR

Here we go again. In February, the Republican-led House of Representatives passed a budget that would eliminate federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. That event tells you everything you need to know about the resignation this morning of NPR president and chief executive office Vivian Schiller. Yes, her underling Robert Schiller (no relation) embarrassed the organization by making some politically inexpedient remarks about the Tea Party, Republicans,and some more arcane issues, all captured on tape by conservative activists.

But at the average media organization, the “gotcha” video moment would likely have passed without the CEO’s resignation. Public radio is not the average media organization. It is held to an almost certainly unobtainable standard of objectivity, while commercial radio has thrived in recent decades by cultivating the most extreme political voices. It has a significantly larger audience than public television, yet receives a much smaller amount of public funding. And in order to further survival in its current form, it’s forced to regularly appeal to a relatively small number of legislators whose animosity toward it is deep and very public.

Radio has always occupied a peculiar place in American public broadcasting. Unlike, say, Britain, where radio was the original medium that created the audience-funded BBC empire, radio has never been the star of the American public broadcasting galaxy. As I documented in a book called Made Possible By…: The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States, the Johnson Administration’s original draft of the Public Broadcasting Act made no mention of radio at all; a Johnson aide claimed that radio was hastily added the night before the bill was sent to Congress. All the emphasis was on television, a bias that the budgets for American public radio and television have displayed ever since. A public radio official in 1975 agreed with a Congressman’s assessment that public radio was “sort of a poor relative to public TV.”

Digital media and the Arab spring

BAHRAIN-CLASHES/

By Philip N. Howard, author of “The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam,” and director of the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam at the University of Washington. The opinions expressed are his own.

President Obama identified technology as one of the key variables that enabled and encouraged average Egyptians to protest. Digital media didn’t oust Mubarak, but it did provide the medium by which soulful calls for freedom have cascaded across North Africa and the Middle East. It is difficult to know when the Arab Spring will end, but we can already say something about the political casualties, long-term regional consequences and the modern recipe for democratization.

It all started with a desperate Tunisian shopkeeper who set himself on fire, which activated a transnational network of citizens exhausted by authoritarian rule. Within weeks, digitally-enabled protesters in Tunisia tossed out their dictator. It was social media that spread both the discontent and inspiring stories of success from Tunisia across North Africa and into the Middle East.

Rumsfeld’s biggest unknown

USA-AFGHAN/TILLMANBy Joshua Spivak
The opinions expressed are his own.

The knives are out in Donald Rumsfeld’s new memoir, Known and Unknown. In defense of his long public service career and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the man who was both the youngest and oldest Defense Secretary clearly believes that a good offense is the best strategy.

While the book is receiving press for the intra-cabinet fights and for Rumsfeld cherry-picking his facts, it ends up being a useful and needed work: In eviscerating fellow members of President George W. Bush’s national security team, Rumsfeld raises questions about how the most critical parts of the executive branch operate.

With the relentlessly negative portrayals of political and military figures and constant complaints about the press and the legislature, it is not obvious that Rumsfeld is looking to make a larger point other than defending his tenure and slashing at adversaries. And slash he does — among the many, many bold-faced names who receive unwelcome shout-outs are long-time Rumsfeld foe George H.W. Bush, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, John McCain, Al Gore (he even takes an early whack at Gore’s father), Jerry Bremer, Eric Shinseki, and, in a golden oldies moment, Nixon’s counsel John Ehrlichman. His assessment of Ehrlichman may be the best line in the book, noting,“Certainty without power can be interesting, and even amusing. Certainty with power can be dangerous.”

from Bernd Debusmann:

In America, violence and guns forever

Another American mass shooting. Another rush to buy more guns.

On the Monday after the latest of the bloody rampages that are part of American life, gun sales in Arizona shot up by more than 60 percent and rose by an average of five percent across the entire country. The figures come from the FBI and speak volumes about a gun culture that has long baffled much of the world.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation compared January 10, 2011, with the corresponding Monday a year ago.

So what would prompt Americans to stock up their arsenals in the wake of the shooting in Tucson that killed six people and wounded 14, including Gabrielle Giffords, the congresswoman who was the target of an unhinged 22-year-old who has since been charged with attempted assassination?

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