Americans disagree about important issues. But the division is not simply between rich and poor voters, or religious and secular, or rich and poor states. Each of these factors is important, but the true differences lie in subsets of the population: rich versus poor voters in poor states, high-income religious versus high-income secular voters, red states versus blue states among rich voters, and so forth.
Andrew Gelman’s Red State, Blue States, Rich State, Poor State (2008) lays out America’s electoral divides.
Here is some positive and even practical advice on what to do about a country whose private economy and culture are still highly resilient, but whose ability to address public problems is being destroyed…
James Fallows gathers together some recommended reading
on one of the United States’s more intractable problems, the filibuster.
I don’t think there’s a more quintessentially American institution of civil society than the Methodist Church. An 18th century offshoot of Anglican Protestantism, American Methodism is infused with the cultural, institutional, and political character of the United States. And nowhere is this more clear than in the governance structure of the church. First and foremost, the congregants are sovereign. Everything — and I mean everything — can ultimately be put to a popular vote. Second, there’s a Constitution, which not only requires a supermajority of the legislature (oh yes, more on this in a sec) to change, but also must be ratified by the provincial bodies. At the national level, there are three branches — a legislature (the General Conference) that can write/amend a body of laws, an Executive (the Council of Bishops; there’s no singular pope-like figure), and a Judiciary (the Judicial Council). And while the Council of Bishops is obviously restricted to clergy members, it is ultimately popular elections (either direct or indirect) that populate all of the positions.
More fascinating is the federalism of the system, which looks something like a cross between American federalism and the structure of the 19th century American political parties. Churches are grouped into conferences, with each conference headed by an elected bishop. The conferences serve as provincial governments. Each conference has an annual meeting (confusingly called the annual conference), which is attended by all pastors and an equal number of delegates elected by the individual churches and which serves as the legislative session for the year — ordaining clergy, setting budgets, goals, and policies. And, of course, every four years, the annual conference selects delegates to the national general conference. The general conference — the meeting of the national legislature — is the only entity that can make general policy (theological, governance, or otherwise) for the church.
Matt Glassman, who also includes an H.L. Mencken quote:
Whenever a reporter is assigned to cover a Methodist conference, he comes home an atheist.
This seems to be a pattern running through Republican attempts to unseat Obama this campaign season. Conservatives are convinced that the President was given a free pass by a napping media in the 2008 campaign. They believe he was insufficiently vetted, and that both reporters and the campaign of Republican nominee John McCain failed to draw the public’s attention to parts of Obama’s biography that the right considered troubling. After three years in office and with two books penned by the President readily available in stores across the United States, many on the right are still firmly convinced that Obama is a mystery man about whom the American public knows little.
My new piece at American Review could, in one sense, be read as concern trolling, but it wasn’t written in that spirit. Springing off the Joe Ricketts story, it’s a discussion of how so many Republican electioneering attempts thus far in the campaign have been targeted against the president as conservatives imagine him to be, which, I believe, is something different to how the rest of America sees its president.
I find the conservative take on Obama, and the Obama presidency, rather interesting. Not so much the really out there stuff — birtherism, Kenyan anti-colonialism, etc. — but the things that run-of-the-mill base members believe. What makes it all such a mess is the overlap between the right wing fringe and the Republican mainstream, and how difficult it is to separate the two. For instance, many conservatives believe Obama is a dunce (the teleprompter, the idea that he relied on affirmative action for his education) and an arrogant fraud (the “celebrity” thing). Undoubtedly that’s a belief that, for a lot of people, is motivated by uncomplicated racism — but for many others it arises from a sincere failure to understand the appeal of the man or his policies, and so, to these folks, accusations of racism look like an attempt to silence criticism of the president.
I’m also fascinated by the constant accusations on the right that Obama has wantonly disregarded the Constitution. That’s because those accusations are so similar in tone to the ones the left made against George W. Bush in his presidency. I’m not going to fall into the trap of false equivalency: the left had an immeasurably better case than the right does. And though some of the right’s criticisms are grounded in fair concerns about the Administration’s foreign policy and anti-terror tactics, for the most part, they’re fairly groundless. But then, perhaps the left mixed in a lot of groundless accusations against the Bush administration along with its multitude of very real concerns?
The reason this happens is that America is a nation founded on an idea*. The only problem is that no one in America can agree on what that idea is, although they all think they’re personal conception of the idea is a universal one. And there’s a widespread belief that the Constitution is a pretty good attempt at capturing the idea. (The Declaration of Independence is an even better one.) So if you’re someone for whom the policies of a president like Barack Obama do not accord with your ideas of what America should be, then it makes sense that you will consider them in breach of the Constitution — the document that explains what America should be.
Anyway, this is venturing into territory I haven’t fully thought through. But my column is here. Read!
*This is a piece of American exceptionalism of which I firmly believe the truth. I can think of few other nations to which this applies; the states of the old world are ethnic entities, while few new world nations share such ideological origins. Australia, for instance, was founded out of a desire to preserve the colonial outpost’s Britishness, and we’ve spent our entire history trying to imagine what being Australian might be. See here for more of my discussion on this.
Jimmy Carter did indeed make a gutsy go/no-go call. It turned out to be a tactical, strategic, and political disaster. You can read the blow-by-blow in Mark Bowden’s retrospective of “The Desert One Debacle.” With another helicopter, the mission to rescue U.S. diplomats then captive in Tehran might well have succeeded — and Carter is known still to believe that if the raid had succeeded, he would probably have been re-elected. Full discussion another time, but I think he’s right. (Even with the fiasco, and a miserable “stagflation” economy, the 1980 presidential race was very close until the very end.)
In fact, one of my arguments is that through all of these waves of change, the two big traditions are not liberalism and conservatism — which are loose phrases that change their meaning in different periods — it’s the Hamiltonian and the Jeffersonian traditions. These two views go back to Alexander Hamilton, who was the first secretary of the Treasury and to some degree was prime minister for George Washington during his administration, and Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton’s bitter enemy. Around these two figures, from the very early years of the republic, coalesced two views of the proper role of government in the economy. Neither view is laissez-faire. Both the Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians are willing to use government for their particular purposes, but their purposes differ.
The Hamiltonians are nationalist — they see the nation as more important than the states and the cities, which are just components. Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, through even to Eisenhower and Nixon, want government, business and banking to collaborate often on a very large scale for national economic development. And in different periods they are denounced by the left or the right or the center — so this isn’t a liberal or conservative thing.
The Jeffersonian vision is not a vision of an unregulated free market; it’s a vision of local communities made up of small banks, small businesses and small government. And so the Jeffersonians, a category which includes William Jennings Bryan in the late 19th century and a lot of populist conservatives today, are perfectly willing to have the government intervene to protect small businesses and small banks against big businesses and big banks. One of the major forms of protectionism and privilege throughout American history — which continues today — is the popularity of special privileges for small businesses, even though they may be very inefficient from a Hamiltonian point of view in terms of the national economy.
The evening is a result of the fact, feature or bug, that our nation’s capital is located well outside our nation’s media, entertainment and financial capitals, forcing those who call the political capital home and consider themselves terribly important to prove their importance by tricking actual famous and important people into attending a party much lamer than a random Wednesday night back where they live.