Is this an Economic Reform Agenda Conservatives and Liberals can Endorse (and Millennials Should Fight for)?

Recently, Jesse A. Myerson has defended five economic reforms that he thinks fellow members of his Millennial Generation should “start fighting for, pronto, if we want to grow old in a just, fair society, rather than the economic hellhole our parents have handed us.” Myerson’s proposal is ambitious, including “Guaranteed Work for Everybody” and “Social Security for All [aka universal basic income]”. As one might expect, conservatives and libertarians have been highly critical. One fellow Millennial accused Myerson of trying to convince their generation to have “their livelihoods funded and assigned by the state,” thus completely ignoring the lesson they all were taught by “Lois Lowry’s The Giver in middle school.”

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Does it Matter that so Few Congress Members are Veterans?

Graph by Kevin Jefferies

Over at Monkey Cage, Erik Voeten offers an interesting discussion on the decline in the proportion of Congress members who are veterans and what, according to political science research, this might mean for Congressional foreign policy making:

Frank Lautenberg, who passed away this summer, was the last of 115 World War II veterans who served in the U.S. Senate. To the best of my knowledge, there will be only 12 U.S. senators who have experienced active military service in the 114th Congress. Only one in five members of the current House of Representatives were active-duty military. By contrast, during most of the Cold War, 70 percent of the U.S. Congress were veterans, with the peak coming in 1977 (80 percent).

Does this matter for policy making? There is some research suggesting that it does, most notably the work by Peter Feaver and Chris Gelpi. Feaver and Gelpi establish the following regularities (see especially this book and this chapter-length update):

— On issues that concern the use of force and the acceptance of casualties, the opinions of veterans track more closely with those of active military officers than with civilians.

— The U.S. initiates fewer military disputes when there are more veterans in the U.S. political elite (the cabinet and the Congress).

— The U.S. uses more force in the disputes it initiates when there are more veterans in the U.S. political elite.

— Veterans are less likely to accept U.S. casualties for interventionist uses of force than for “realpolitik” uses of force. [keep reading]

[Graph by Kevin Jefferies]

Our Unsettled Constitution

I often point out to students that several debates that moved outside the mainstream of American politics for most of the second half of the 20th century (or longer) have reentered or are on the verge of reentering the mainstream today. For example, yesterday in my U.S. Constitutional Law (POLS 4130) class, we talked about Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905), a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared the U.S. Constitution does not bar states from enacting mandatory vaccinations in order to promote public health. Of course, mandatory vaccinations have once again become a hotly politicized issue in recent years, although this has not yet resulted (as far as I know) in a new round of constitutional litigation. Another example is the call for repeal of the 16th Amendment (under specified conditions) in the 2012 Republican Platform. Similarly, the Tea Party has endorsed repealing the 17th Amendment. Yet another example, as Sandy Levinson has pointed out, is the reemergence of serious arguments over the constitutional right of states to nullify federal laws (once thought long settled by Cooper v. Aaron in 1958 if not Andrew Jackson’s 1832 “Proclamation Regarding Nullification”) and even to secede (once thought long settled by the Civil War). Still another example is Rand Paul’s insistence during his successful 2010 campaign for the U.S. Senate that he rejected the Supreme Court’s  unanimous 1964 opinion in Heart of Atlanta Hotel v. U.S. that the Commerce Clause of Article I, Section 8 authorizes Congress to outlaw racial discrimination by certain kinds of privately owned businesses (as Congress did with the Civil Rights Act of 1964). (I could also point to various  other proposals for radically amending the Constitution or drafting an entirely new constitution but that do not yet seem to be on the verge of entering the mainstream of political debate. That said, here are some examples if you are curious.)

My point in mentioning all this in class is to illustrate how the nature and meaning of the Constitution is never really settled. We have moments of relative consensus on certain issues, but you never really know which issues, long thought settled, will reemerge as objects of debate in response to changes in social conditions, intellectual developments, political movements, etc.  And I think a defining characteristic of our time is that an unusually broad array of fundamental questions about the constitutionality of decades-old political-institutional “settlements” are increasingly being raised and debated within the political mainstream.

This was very much on display in a recent exchange among self-described “conservative” opinion leaders over the constitutionality of the welfare state–i.e. much of what the federal government has done since the New Deal era. It started with Charles Krauthammer’s appearance on The Daily Show with John Stewart in which he magnanimously praised “the great achievements of liberalism — the achievements of the New Deal, of Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare.” Krauthammer said this in the course of defending what he contends is “true conservatism,” which, he says, is supportive of those “great achievements” but only concerned with keeping them sustainable into the future.

This prompted Andrew McCarthy to argue that Krauthammer’s “conservatism” is no such thing. Rather, it is simply the “moderate statism” of the “Republican establishment” that “‘is more sympathetic to Obama’s case for the welfare state than to the Tea Party’s case for limited government and individual liberty.'”  Importantly, McCarthy did not simply claim that true conservatism is opposed to the welfare state. He went further to insist that it is unconstitutional:

[C]onservatives revere an enriching cultural inheritance that binds generations past, present, and future. It obliges us to honor our traditions and our Constitution, preserve liberty, live within our means, and enhance the prosperity of those who come after us. The welfare state is a betrayal of our constitutional traditions: It is redistributionist gluttony run amok, impoverishing future generations to satisfy our insatiable contemporaries…

This, in turn, led Conor Friedersdorf, a third self-proclaimed “conservative,” to offer an extended rebuke of the views expressed by McCarthy, whom he refers to as more of a “fundamentalist for originalism” than a true “conservative.”

You’d think, given the totality of McCarthy’s positions, that “constitutional conservatism” is an end in itself. It isn’t. Advancing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—that is the end. I, like many conservatives, believe that for the most part those ends are best advanced by working within the constitutional framework. Like many liberals, I also believe that slavery and Jim Crow were such abominations that, if the choices were to strictly construe the constitution or to free the slaves and end Jim Crow, to hell with originalist notions of states rights.

What does that have to do with McCarthy’s argument? He is too enamored of the heuristic that what’s constitutional is liberty-enhancing and what’s unconstitutional is liberty-destroying. It’s a good heuristic, but it doesn’t always hold.

Arguing with him, I normally point out why I think that his expansive views of executive power betray Madison’s vision. Today let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that he has been right all along: that strict adherence to the Constitution really does permit secret kill lists, torture, massive surveillance, and indefinite detention; and it really does prohibit, say, Social Security and Medicare.

Even if that were true, it would not change the fact that the national-security state and its open-ended concentration of unaccountable power poses a far greater threat to liberty than federally bankrolled social-welfare spending (even if you think, as I do, that the spending could be improved upon).

… The Constitution ought to play a prominent role in our politics. But I’d like to see McCarthy construct an argument for his favored policies without any mention of or recourse to the document. Perhaps that would make it clearer that suspending due process puts a country farther along the road to serfdom than old-age pensions.

I say that his position is not conservative because, while conserving our constitutional design is certainly a coherent part of a conservative approach to governing, McCarthy isn’t proposing to conserve something that still exists—rather, he is proposing that we take an approach to social-welfare policy that hasn’t been tried since the early 1930s and apply it to the modern economy: a radical change, whatever one thinks of it. The radicalism and unpredictability of what might happen next doesn’t necessarily make him wrong. But conservative is a weird word for it. . . .

Regardless of one’s views on this normative debate, as a factual matter, I think it’s safe to say that the Constitution–specifically, the debate over its fundamental nature and meaning–is playing and will continue to “play a prominent role in our politics,” and that this means knowledge of constitutionalism is essential for understanding contemporary politics.

(On that note, I highly recommend taking courses offered by the Political Science and History departments on American constitutionalism — usually under the title of “constitutional law” and/or “constitutional history”.)

Is Polarization Caused by Extreme Voters in (Closed) Primaries?

Data from 2008 Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project, merged with turnout data from Catalist. Graph by John Sides and Lynn Vavreck.

A lot of people think that party polarization could be mitigated if states reformed their system of nominating candidates. This is based on the assumption that those who vote in primaries are more ideologically extreme than general-election-only voters. The extreme primary voters, according to this theory, nominate extreme candidates, which leaves the moderate general-election-only voters with no moderate candidates to vote for.  This results in the election of candidates who are more extreme than the majority of voters actually prefer.

John Sides points out that the political science consensus suggests otherwise. Among other things, he points to the chart above, which is based on a large survey of voters in the 2008 election. The data demonstrate that there is in fact little ideological difference between primary and general-election-only voters. For the most part, primary voters are simply more interested in politics than are general-election-only voters:

Those who voted in the primary were clearly more interested in politics but did not have very different views on issues (with the possible exception, for Republicans, of raising taxes on the wealthy).  Other research finds a similar pattern; see here or here or here.   Given these findings, increasing primary turnout would not necessarily create a very different electorate and therefore different incentives for candidates or incumbents. [read the entire post here]


Post-Racial Politics? (Not yet, but wait a generation or two)

There has been much debate over the extent to which Obama’s presidency signals that we have entered a “post-racial” era in American politics. Does the fact that we (twice) elected a black president mean our politics is no longer shaped by negative racial stereotypes? In recent days, the Monkey Cage has discussed research providing empirical evidence that (1) “racial resentment” played a role in the government shutdown, but (2) Obama’s Presidency may have led young people to have attitudes “more favorable to blacks than every previous generation.” This research suggests that, while “post-racial” is not an apt description of our present politics, there is reason to suspect there may be a post-racial politics on the horizon.

Will Libertarians and Progressives Ever Form a “Liberaltarian” Alliance?

Zack Beauchamp doesn’t think so:

Unlike some progressives, I’m deeply sympathetic to the idea of a left-libertarian alliance. I like the libertarians line on the drug war, mass incarceration, civil liberties, corporate welfare, immigration, and restrictions on internet pornography and other infringements free speech. Libertarians are a net-positive influence on Republican foreign policy and some of their arguments for economic freedom contain important insights about oppression and domination. There’s a lot to recommend about “liberaltarianism,” in short.

And yet it never seems to amount to anything in real terms. . . . [Continue reading]


The Effects of Partisan News Media on Voters and Members of Congress

Over at Monkey Cage, John Sides discusses new research on media effects conducted by political scientists Kevin Arceneaux, Martin Johnson, René Lindstädt and Ryan J. Vander Wielen:

The emergence of Fox News in 1996 offers researchers a neat opportunity. Cable providers added Fox News gradually, meaning that people in some parts of the country could see Fox News while others could not. The gradual rollout of Fox News makes it easier to identify its effects. For example, Republican-leaning voters were more likely to support then-Gov. George W. Bush in places with Fox News compared to places without it. Now, new research shows that Fox News’s impact extended beyond voters — to members of Congress themselves. And perhaps most surprisingly, both Democratic and Republican members were affected. [Continue reading here.]