Thursday, January 27, 2011

Steve Daines' FEC Filing: What do the first quarter numbers REALLY mean?

Last week, Dan Person at the Bozeman Chronicle reported that Steve Daines, the Republican challenger to incumbent Senator Jon Tester, raised nearly a quarter of a million dollars in the two months since he filed his statement of candidacy with the FEC.

That’s a pretty substantial accomplishment at first blush. By comparison, Tester had raised only $60,000 at the time of his first reporting period after he announced his challenge to then-incumbent Senator Burns in 2005. Even by the second reporting period, he had only $300,000 or so raised. It should be further noted that Senator Tester reported $500,000 cash-on-hand at the close of the October 2010 quarterly filing (and may have much more now—his report is not yet available at the FEC's website). In 2006, Tester spent more than $5 million to oust Burns. Frankly, I’d expect a larger cash on-hand number at this stage of the game. Let’s see what happens when the January numbers come out. If those numbers do not substantially improve, it might (and I suggest this oh-so-tentatively) that Tester may be thinking about retiring. And if that happens, the dynamics in this race change dramatically.

Daines’ fundraising numbers sure sound impressive. But to put the amount into context, Daines’ filing needs to be carefully reviewed—and I will do this once it becomes publicly available. Here’s what I’ll be looking at closely:

Political Action Committees: Has Daines received any money from national PACs? PACs contribute strategically and generally receive access to internal polls. If a number of PACs have contributed early to Daines, it suggests that he’s polling well and could put up a substantial challenge to Tester.

Donors Contributing the Maximum Amount: How many donors have maxed out? If many of the donors have given the legal maximum this early, it suggests two things. First, these folks are strongly committed to Daines. Secondly, however, it also says that Daines will need to expand his donor base dramatically in the upcoming quarter to improve upon the first quarter numbers. This, of course, is a difficult task.

Out-of-state Money: I look at where contributions are coming from for two reasons. First, if a substantial amount of money is coming from within Montana, that suggests a good deal of political support within the state. However, to raise the substantial sums of money necessary to win a Senate election, candidates often have to draw upon donations from outside the state. Does Daines appear to have the makings of a national donor network at this early stage? If so, it’s also a good sign. Now, to be fair, national money usually comes into a race LATER—when it becomes clearer which Senate races are targeted by the national committees, and once PACs have signaled which races they are putting their resources into.

Who in Montana Has Given Daines Money: If Steve Daines has raised most of his money from Bozeman, family connections, and business associates from RightNow Technologies but has not yet begun to expand beyond those connections, it might suggest that’s he’s tapped all the easy money early. This simply means that it will be harder to sustain his momentum UNLESS those connections have not yet maxed out OR his campaign begins to catch on among GOP activists throughout the state.

In summary, I was impressed initially with the Daines fundraising numbers—but will reserve final judgment until I’ve looked at the January filing more closely. Surely, if I worked for Jon Tester, I would take note and start working the phones.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Civility and Political Theory

The Political Theory Consortium met yesterday for the first time this semester, to discuss the article “The Value of Civility?” by the Georgetown Political Scientist Richard Boyd (author of the 2004 book Uncivil Society: The Perils of Pluralism and the Making of Modern Liberalism).

Boyd’s article is a good primer on the virtue of civility: he considers the range of connotations for civility, the formal vs. substantive dimensions of civility (is civility valuable for its functional role in enabling political society to form? is civility valuable as an intrinsic moral obligations we have to our fellow citizens?), he looks at critiques of civility as a mask of power/elitism/exclusion/conformity, and he raises the difficult question of what can be done to encourage the cultivation of more civility. In line with other recent posts to this blog, our aim in reading this article was to think about how it bears on our understanding of the recent violence in Arizona. More on this in a moment.

First, a side note: I have begun both my classes this semester by talking about the difference between political science and political theory. In Modern Political Thought, we discussed Ruth Grant’s article “Political Theory, Political Science, and Politics” (Political Theory vol. 30, no. 4 2002), which suggests that political science aims to explain mechanisms of cause and effect, and political theory aims to explain meaning and significance. As a historical, critical, and interpretive endeavor, political theory is fundamentally about judgment – how “judgments are made, how they influence events, and how they should be assessed.” In Contemporary Political Thought, we start with the first chapter of Leslie Paul Thiele’s Thinking Politics. Like Grant, Thiele suggests that, “political theories are not so much proven true or false as they are shown to be helpful or unhelpful in understanding collective existence, an existence that is rife with meaning but short on truth.”

Theorizing about our shared world is something we all do on a daily basis, whether we know it or not, in so far as we interpret events and attempt to construct a parsimonious, accurate and resonant narrative about those events. When we get the story right, it strikes others whom we share it with as meaningful and useful. Put more simply, if we witness political events, we want to know “What’s up with that?” Political theory equips us to make the judgments we need to make to answer that question.

So, back to civility. Our discussion relatively quickly determined that the story of a collapse of civility in the United States did little as a narrative to interpret and explain why Jared Loughner attempted to assassinate Gabrielle Giffords. There are clear empirical dimensions to this question, and perhaps the evidence isn’t fully in yet. But the prevailing opinion was that Loughner is severely mentally ill, and conventional ways of thinking about human interaction probably didn’t meaningfully capture his situation.

But is Boyd’s notion of civility as a form of “mutual deference” that allows the natural inclination to sympathy for others to express itself helpful for us as we reflect on the fractious political climate in the United States today? (And again, as Eric points out below, this is an empirical question to a point: is political discourse more rancorous today than at other points in history? Perhaps not, but a September 2010 poll out of the Center for Political Participation found that 58% of Americans perceive the tone of political discourse to be worse in our time). Does the so-called collapse of civility in politics signal that rivals don’t consider each other moral equals? Have we lost a commitment to the “liberal virtues” (tolerance, moderation, equality, good faith engagement with others, etc.) that are necessary for a flourishing democratic society? Is a more formal, “thin” civility perhaps the thickest moral relationship suited for the conditions of a large, pluralist society?

These are classic questions for the political theorist: subject to interpretation, essentially contestable, premised on our beliefs about human nature and history, reflective of our values. Our discussion last night was lively in attempting to make some sense of it all. Ultimately, I wanted more from Boyd on how we can encourage the cultivation of greater civility. This is the crux of the matter, and the American people don’t seem to have a lot of confidence in the ability of politicians to exercise self-restraint when an opportunity to grandstand or go for the jugular presents itself (the overtures in Washington this week toward a “new era of civility” notwithstanding).

Boyd leaves us with the issue that Grant and Thiele broach: judgment. The closest he gives to an answer to this complex question of ethical self-cultivation is to say, “Part (although by no means the whole) of learning to be civil is a training in suspending judgment about others who are different from ourselves.” So, this may not be something we can write our Congressperson about, but it is a practice we can each engage in every day. As the political theorist Hanna Pitkin tells us, there is a fundamental difference between making necessary political judgments and being needlessly judgmental. Developing the wisdom to grasp that difference is not easy. But it’s something we can all do, or work towards, that might ultimately be political transformative from the bottom up.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A More Civil Discourse?

In the days since the tragic shootings in Tucson, there has been a renewed concern with the tone and tenor of our political discourse. Some portion of the arm waiving and finger pointing is driven by the belief that the shootings were somehow directly influenced by the violent metaphors present in a dysfunctional discourse. From another perspective comes the claim that there is little if any evidence that even the most egregious discourse increases incidents of violence. The question, in short, seems to be does it matter if our political discourse is, or has become more vitriolic in the current environment?

It can, however, be argued that the tone of our current political discourse is little, if any, worse than at other points in our history (e.g. the secessionist debates prior to the Civil War, the reconstruction era after the Civil War and debates of New Deal programs in the 1930’s), and the tenor of that discourse makes little difference anyway. James Madison, writing as Publius in Federalist 10 recognizes this when he writes of factions. “By a faction I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion…” (emphasis added). From his perspective, passion, as a cause of faction, is inherent in politics. It is easy to see how such passion can and does result in outbursts of dramatic, impassioned and even inflammatory rhetoric. To be clear, there is a point when impassioned rhetoric becomes dysfunctional, but the rush to make our discourse civil overlooks an important point. The concern here might be less about the implied or explicit violence in the rhetoric of the day, and more about the content of that rhetoric. That is to say, reducing the volume and shifting the symbolism of our current political discourse will do nothing to make it less vacuous.

Said differently, the concern about the tone of public dialogue misses an important point about the nature of political discourse in a democracy. The important question is not “does tone matter”, but rather, “how does substance and content matter”?

One argument for the importance of substantive political discourse emerges from the logic of market economies, and is compelling because of its consistency with ideas that we’re both intuitively familiar with, and that we believe work in terms of our day-to-day experience. This way of thinking about the value of political discourse can be found in the metaphor that views politics as a sort of Marketplace of Ideas. The Marketplace of Ideas metaphor has a rich history that can be found, for example, in Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ 1919 dissent in Abrams v. U.S. In his opinion, Holmes argued that society’s ultimate good "is better reached by free trade in ideas -- that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market." In other words, political ideas are like products in the market place. Political actors assess the content various ideas in order to determine which is most beneficial to his utility or self-interest. In aggregate, the idea that is best for the community as a whole will win out.

Critics of the Marketplace metaphor, such as Constitutional Law scholar Jerome Barron argue that it contains a number of flawed assumptions. A few of these assumptions are worth noting here:

  • Truth is objective and discoverable, rather than subjective and chosen or created. The sophistication of contemporary marketing efforts demonstrates the extent to which the objective information may be obscured. Similarly, political claims can often be constructed out of values and ideology, rather than being objectively discovered in measurable ways.
  • Truth is always among the ideas in the marketplace and always survives and People are basically rationale and are able to perceive the truth. The ubiquity and effect of claims that health care reform is a “government takeover of healthcare”, as well as the emotional responses to this claim, are recent, but certainly not the only examples that call into question the assumption that the truth survives and that individuals are basically rational.

Under conditions where the truth of political claims and the rationality of political actors are both problematic, the metaphor itself may fall into question. What then, might an alternative be?

Interestingly, if not ironically, the recent, recurring references to the importance of our Constitutional foundations, inadvertently points to an alternative in our own political history: the exercise of reason and the integration of ideas via collaboration (substantive political discourse) rather than either ideological dogmatism or competition (win-loose power politics). This possibility is embodied in the Constitution itself, expressed in the importance of the Virginia and other proposed compromises as influences on the final, ratified text of the Constitution. While it’s true that the writing and ratification of the Constitution was characterized by no small amount of political wrangling, the record of the Convention as well as the Federalist/Antifederalist debate that followed shows extraordinary elegance and substance in its reasoning.

The central idea in this second claim about how content matters holds that ideas are not products, and politics is not a commodity exchange where one idea is selected and all others are left aside. Ideas are not dichotomous, either/or propositions and moreover, many ideas, perhaps most ideas, are not inherently incommensurable. They can be subject to reasoned assessment, adaptation and most importantly, integration. Integration goes beyond simple compromise, which can be characterized as being loose-loose, both sides having given up something of substantive importance. However, the discourse required to accomplish effective integration must be rigorous, substantive and content rich.

The possibility of ideas emerging synergistically from groups has appeared in popular outlets including James Suroweicki’s “The Wisdom of Crowds” and William Ury’s notion of the third way. These ideas have a longer tradition practice in American settings, dating at least to Jane Addams and the settlement house movement, and the writing of Mary Parker Follett.

Although any debate between market and integration perspectives won’t be resolved here, what’s clear in both is that content is king. The question remains, is there anything in the current conversation about civil political discourse that improves the quality and substance of its content?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Sin, Failure, Weakness, and Ignorance

David Brooks' column in today's New York Times is an excellent read, and should provoke some conversation about how to create a culture of civility--and why we lack such a culture today. Read it here.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Congresswoman Giffords, Political Violence, and the Meaning of Words

On Saturday, alleged shooter Jared Loughner pulled the trigger of a 9mm Glock and shot Congressman Gabrille Giffords (D-AZ) in the head. Loughner is responsible for this unspeakable act of political violence, and he should pay dearly for his crimes.

But, we as a society, should not be held blameless.

Loughner may have pulled the trigger, but we have created a political environment which nurtures lunatic, fringe nuts like him. Neither the right nor the left have a monopoly on vitriolic imagery or language: Both engage in over-the-top appeals to our baser instincts.

To wit, former Congressman Alan Grayson (D-FL) on Hardball in 2009:

“I have trouble listening to what [Dick Cheney] says sometimes, because of the blood that drips from his teeth while he’s talking…He’s just angry because the president doesn’t shoot old men in the face. But by the way, when he was done speaking, did he just then turn into a bat and fly away?”

And, recent Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle in January 2010:

“You know, our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. And in fact Thomas Jefferson said it's good for a country to have a revolution every 20 years.

I hope that's not where we're going, but, you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around? I'll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.”

The demonization of our political opponents, free speech advocates say, is part and parcel of American political history. I agree: After recently reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, I was reminded of the baseness and vileness of some political discourse during the early days of the Republic. The difference, of course, is the speed and rapidity with which such discourse can flood through the body politic today via the Internet, chat rooms, and Twitter. All of these tools make it not only easier for words of all kinds to reach audiences of all types, but it also allows those on the fringes of society easier access to one another, to better share their vile, contemptible beliefs and conspiracy theories. Worse still is the ease with which we can shut ourselves off from the ideas and opinions of those with whom we disagree, never allowing ourselves the opportunity to reexamine our beliefs and engage in an exchange of ideas.

Critics on the left quickly made the connection between Loughner’s actions and some of the violent anti-government language of the right, while some on the right have responded by denouncing the act and blaming the liberal media and the left. Tea Party Founder Judson Phillips remarked that “the left is coming and will hit us hard on this. We need to push back harder with the simple truth. The shooter was a liberal lunatic. Emphasis on both words.”

Others argue the claim that the facts simply do not bear out the conclusion that Loughner was motivated by violent political discourse. As Glenn Reynolds writes in today’s Wall Street Journal: “To be clear, if you're using this event to criticize the ‘rhetoric’ of Mrs. Palin or others with whom you disagree, then you're either: (a) asserting a connection between the "rhetoric" and the shooting, which based on evidence to date would be what we call a vicious lie; or (b) you're not, in which case you're just seizing on a tragedy to try to score unrelated political points, which is contemptible. Which is it?”

I will agree that making a direct causal link between political rhetoric and the actions of a lone, deranged gunman is a bit of a stretch. But it is also a stretch, I think, to say that words don’t matter, that they don’t have meaning, and that particular word choices don’t have consequences. Especially because many on the right consider themselves textualists or originalists in their approach to constitutional interpretation, this line of reasoning seems odd. According to proponents of textualism (most prominently, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia), the Constitution should be read in the context of the times in which it was written. This means, among other things, that the Second Amendment’s language concerning a well-regulated militia should be understood as a general right for individuals to keep and bear arms. The reason? Because a well-regulated militia in the 1780s essentially constituted average, regular folks who kept arms for hunting and protection, while also taking part in regular military drills to protect their communities from external threats.

I do not take issue with the textualist take on the Constitution. Indeed, if the words don’t have a particular meaning that remains constant throughout the ages, one wonders why have a Constitution at all. A Constitution is different than a law passed by a legislature: It is a compact across generations—and the words in their original form and meaning are the foundation of that contractual arrangement. Only in those areas where the meaning is vague or there is clear disagreement among the authors of the text should the court intervene and provide guidance.

One might reasonably conjecture, however, that if the Constitution’s exact wording is so important, then so are the words chosen and the tone taken in political discourse more broadly. If the wording of the Constitution has specific and clear consequences, why don’t we believe the same for that which we utter?

Is Sharron Angle or Sarah Palin (who infamously targeted Giffords with crosshairs in a fundraising appeal) responsible for Jared Loughner? In a causal sense, absolutely not: Only Jared Loughner is responsible for his deeds and actions. But what Palin, Angle, Grayson, and their ilk are responsible for is dehumanizing their political opponents, debasing political discourse, and creating an environment of general disrespect for those who try to serve the public good. As we become more and more careless in our words and callous toward one another, it should not surprise that some might take that callousness and lack of respect to the next level—especially in today’s age of instant communication and gratification that seems to put a premium on immediate action at the expense of deliberation.

At the end of the day, we have to decide what kind of political discourse we want. Do we want to foster an environment that acknowledges the humanity of our opponents, the legitimacy of their ideas, and the pursuit of the common ground? Or do we want a slash and burn, take no prisoners approach to politics that sees compromise as weakness and political opponents as enemies to be beaten into submission? It’s our choice and our responsibility to hold those in the public realm accountable for their actions and their words. Suppression of speech is not the answer, I will agree, but is it too much to ask our leaders to speak carefully and deliberately instead of recklessly and outrageously? To quote Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address:

“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

My prayers are with the Giffords family, the people of Tucson, and to everyone hurt or affected by this weekend’s tragedy. Let’s use this moment to ask all of us—on the left and the right—to appeal to “the better angels of our nature” instead of our baser instincts.