Quick hits

1) Obviously, I’m out of my depth on Iran, but I think Yglesias is exactly right about how far you should trust the Trump administration on this.  Or anything.

When someone has proven over and over again that they are not trustworthy, you can, and in important situations should, stop trusting them.

Unfortunately, in the escalating crisis with Iran, many people seem to have forgotten this basic principle.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went on CNN Friday morning to explain that the Trump administration killed a top Iranian general to forestall an “imminent threat” and that the decision to do so “saved American lives.” Those remarks are simply echoed uncritically in the Washington Post’s main write-up of the story, along with the observation that Pompeo “stressed that Washington is committed to de-escalation” — a fairly dubious assertion given the current cycle of escalating hostilities dates to Trump’s unprovoked decision to pull out of the Iranian nuclear deal. An ABC News write-up stresses the risks of Iranian retaliation, but simply takes Pompeo’s claim of an imminent threat at face value.

It’s obviously possible that this claim is true. But it’s somewhat at odds with the Department of Defense’s statement Thursday night saying merely that Suleimani was “actively developing plans” for attacks and that the American bombing was “aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans” rather than disrupting an ongoing one. And indeed, David Sanger’s news analysis in the New York Times takes the Pentagon’s deterrence account at face value without noting that the secretary of state actually claims the attack was about something else.

Beyond the contradictions, telling the truth about something would be a strange, new departure for the Trump administration, and it seems unwise to assume that’s something they would do…

Part of Trump lying about everything is that he frequently says things specifically about Iran that are not true…

rump, from time to time, even lies about his own past statements on Iran, spending one day in September complaining that the media reported he’d said he was willing to meet with Iranian leaders without preconditions when he clearly said in both an interview with Chuck Todd and a press conference with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte that he was willing to meet without preconditions.

The point is that the probative value of a Trump statement about Iran is, to be generous, roughly zero. And Pompeo is no better. [emphasis mine]

So, what to make of all this with Iran?  Complicated.  What I do know for sure is that there is literally no reason to believe that Trump or his minions will be telling you the truth about what’s going on.

2) And Slate’s Fred Kaplan on just how dumb this is.  (Great discussion with Pesca on the Gist).

The United States is now at war with Iran.

This is the inescapable result of President Donald Trump’s order to assassinate Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force, arguably the most powerful military leader in the Middle East, and the most important person in Iran,except for the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

You don’t deliberately kill someone like Soleimani unless you’re at war with his country, and even then, you want to think long and hard before you do, given the near-certainty of blowback. The blowback may soon be coming. Friday morning, Khamenei called for three days of national mourning and a “forceful revenge.” It would be shocking if he didn’t follow through.

To convey a sense of Soleimani’s significance, it would be as if, during the Iraq war, the ayatollah had ordered the assassination of Gen. David Petraeus, Gen. Jim Mattis, the head of Special Operations Command, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.* Soleimani’s responsibilities corresponded with all four of these roles. Even then, the analogy falls short because, among Shi’ite Muslims across the region, Soleimani also exuded the charisma of a religious icon, a holy warrior…

Trump’s actions on Thursday had no strategic purpose, and this means that, at a moment when he needs allies more than ever, he is less likely than ever to recruit them.

Did Trump have an endgame in mind when he ordered the attack, or was his action, like so many of his words and actions, simply impulsive? Did any of his advisers warn him of the legal implications and the potential political, military, and economic consequences? We now know that Congress wasn’t notified, much less consulted. Did the National Security Council even meet to weigh the pros and cons or to discuss alternative responses? Give Trump’s track record on deliberations, it’s unlikely.

In any case, whether Trump means to provoke a war or wants to pursue a diplomatic course at some point, there is no one around him very capable of doing either.

3) When looking for readings for my upcoming Political Parties seminar, I came across this great Yashca Mounk piece from 2018 (that I somehow had missed) that summarizes the excellent work on partisanship from both Daniel Hopkins and Lily Mason.  You should read it.

4) Great stuff from NeverTrumper Stuart Stevens, “Wake up, Republicans. Your party stands for all the wrong things now.”

Here’s a question: Does anybody have any idea what the Republican Party stands for in 2020?

One way to find out: As you are out and about marking the new year, it is likely you will come across a Republican to whom you can pose the question, preferably after a drink or two, as that tends to work as truth serum: “Look, I was just wondering: What’s the Republican Party all about these days? What does it, well, stand for?”

I’m betting the answer is going to involve a noun, a verb and either “socialism” or “Democrats.” Republicans now partly define their party simply as an alternative to that other party, as in “I’m a Republican because I’m not a Democrat.”…

Republicans are now officially the character-doesn’t-count party, the personal-responsibility-just-proves-you-have-failed-to-blame-the-other-guy party, the deficit-doesn’t-matter party, the Russia-is-our-ally party, and the I’m-right-and-you-are-human-scum party. Yes, it’s President Trump’s party now, but it stands only for what he has just tweeted.

A party without a governing theory, a higher purpose or a clear moral direction is nothing more than a cartel, a syndicate that exists only to advance itself. There is no organized, coherent purpose other than the acquisition and maintenance of power…

Trump didn’t hijack the GOP and bend it to his will. He did something far easier: He looked at the party, saw its fault lines and then offered himself as a pure distillation of accumulated white grievance and anger. He bet that Republican voters didn’t really care about free trade or mutual security, or about the environment or Europe, much less deficits. He rebranded kindness and compassion as “PC” and elevated division and bigotry as the admirable goals of just being politically incorrect. Trump didn’t make Americans more racist; he just normalized the resentments that were simmering in many households. In short, he let a lot of long-suppressed demons out of the box.

5) Yes, J.K. Rowling stood up to cancel culture, and that’s awesome, but I doubt this will necessarily work as well for those that lack Rowling’s stature.  Megan McArdle:

Not that we care about the people next door to us. Rather, we fret about the opinions of officious strangers, possibly thousands of miles away, who swarm social media like deranged starlings over and over again, in the same pattern: A few thousand souls, left or right, decide that some opinion or behavior, tolerated as recently as last week, is now anathema. Then they descend upon unwitting heretics en masse — as when author J.K. Rowling attracted the mob’s ire in mid-December for tweeting in support of Maya Forstater, who was fired from a British think tank for expressing her belief that biological sex is immutable and binary. “Dress however you please,” Rowling wrote. “Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real? #IStandWithMaya #ThisIsNotADrill

Institutions reward the mob by firing employees, yanking advertising or inflicting other punishments. Those in the mob-ridden middle quietly think this insane but also quietly think the better of saying so out loud. Which is how the Terrible Tens became the decade of the online mob.

Even the most strait-laced small town probably rolled its collective eyes at those delicate souls who supposedly used chintz ruffles to hide piano legs from the imagined stares of lascivious men. We moderns haven’t yet developed any such filters. Today’s vaporing maiden aunts fell for an adolescent prank that gulled them into believing that the thumb-and-forefinger “okay” sign was a secret white-supremacist symbol . . . and rather than ever admit they were fooled, or that it’s a bad idea to voluntarily cede harmless gestures to racist lunatics, things escalated until the U.S. Naval Academy and West Point were investigating whether midshipmen and cadets were making an “okay” sign at this year’s Army-Navy football game.

It would be too neat a bit of plotting if the decade ended with the discovery of the antidote to this proscription plague. Yet I wonder if that isn’t what happened when the mob decided to cancel J.K. Rowling, and she demurred.

Rowling’s tweet earned her all the denunciations and anguished think pieces that a good mobbing entails. The usual script for what would follow: Rowling vanishes the tweet, apologizes and goes on a listening tour until she had been sufficiently reeducated to explain how wrong she’d been. But Rowling didn’t recite her lines.

There was no apology (though Rowling, who for several years apologized each May 2 for a beloved “Harry Potter” character she had killed off, clearly knows how to offer one). GLAAD contacted Rowling’s PR people to arrange a meeting; she declined it. Almost two weeks later, the tweet remains up despite suggestions that Rowling had irreparably tainted her legacy.

Whatever you think of Rowling’s views, you have to acknowledge that until recently, hers was considered a highly progressive opinion. That view was deemed wrongthink not because reasoned debate proved it incorrect, but because activists proved they could shout louder than anyone who voiced it. Can we also agree that virtual name-calling is a bad way to decide important questions? Quite possibly we’ll decide that Rowling’s beliefs are wrong — but that should be a decision, not something we conceded to save our eardrums a beating.

If you’d prefer reasoned debate, it will start with a collective realization that mobs can’t do much except make noise.

(Also, I purposely kept the part about the cadets as I meant to post on that and did not.  I had recently had a non-white student accused of being racist for this and he explained to me it was just a stupid game he did with his friends.  Occam’s razor).

6) Great interactive video feature in the Washington Post on the Australian wildfires.

7) I haven’t quite finished watching “The Irishman” yet (it’s too long!).  I’m enjoying it, but it ultimately strikes me as pretty derivative of, and less entertaining than, Scorsese’s earlier works. Certainly not worth the universal acclaim it has largely received.  I liked Leah Greenblatt’s review:

As Scorsese hopscotches across cities and decades, often in the service of a dizzyingly large number of plot turns, characters, and narrative cul de sacs, it’s hard not to wonder whether the movie — underwritten entirely by Netflix in the anything-goes age of streaming — would have made more sense as a limited series. (The real-life story would certainly support it, and surely there must be reams left over on the cutting-room floor; though it also feels a little like sacrilege to question his famously discerning editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.)

There’s a sense too, that The Irishman is a kind of caps-lock Scorsese — the greatest hits of his career revisited once more, with feeling. The movie’s passing parade of gangsters and goodfellas don’t have the electric specificity of 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street or the still, hymn-like beauty of 2016’s Silence. Babies are born; deals are forged; doubles are crossed. Men go to prison (though they call it “school”), women smoke cigarettes (and don’t speak much), and kids (played in adulthood by, among others, Anna Paquin and Jesse Plemons) serve mostly as bystanders, looking on in vague confusion or with the harder squint of those who’ve seen more than they really want to know.

It all becomes a bit of muddle for a while midway through; one that’s not nearly as compelling as the acting itself, which is largely phenomenal, frequently surprising, and often more than a little heartbreaking. As Bufalino, Pesci — who’s hardly been on screen for over a decade — abandons his hair-trigger intensity for a sort of gentle, contained menace, his eyes slow-blinking behind enormous glasses and his mouth pursed in a thoughtful moue. He doesn’t want to do bad things, but sometimes bad things are necessary for the order of things, you know?

8) Speaking of movies, I watched Alien with my 9-year old daughter.  She was a little bored as pretty much any 9-year old would be with the pacing of the movie, but she liked it and stuck it out for the whole thing.  And then the whole family watched Aliens.  Damn do those movies hold up.  Sarah wants to watch all the Alien movies now, although I’ve told her it’s all downhill.

9) Good stuff from earlier this year in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the poor job colleges do in getting students to graduate, “Forty percent of students don’t graduate. No one is held accountable. No one is fired. That must change.”

10) Also into the Political Parties syllabus, Lee Drutman’s excellent new piece in the Atlantic, “America Is Now the Divided Republic the Framers Feared: John Adams worried that “a division of the republic into two great parties … is to be dreaded as the great political evil.” And that’s exactly what has come to pass.”

Though America’s two-party system goes back centuries, the threat today is new and different because the two parties are now truly distinct, a development that I date to the 2010 midterms. Until then, the two parties contained enough overlapping multitudes within them that the sort of bargaining and coalition-building natural to multiparty democracy could work inside the two-party system. No more. America now has just two parties, and that’s it.

The theory that guided Washington and Adams was simple, and widespread at the time. If a consistent partisan majority ever united to take control of the government, it would use its power to oppress the minority. The fragile consent of the governed would break down, and violence and authoritarianism would follow. This was how previous republics had fallen into civil wars, and the Framers were intent on learning from history, not repeating its mistakes.

James Madison, the preeminent theorist of the bunch and rightly called the father of the Constitution, supported the idea of an “extended republic” (a strong national government, as opposed to 13 loosely confederated states) for precisely this reason. In a small republic, he reasoned, factions could more easily unite into consistent governing majorities. But in a large republic, with more factions and more distance, a permanent majority with a permanent minority was less likely.

The Framers thought they were using the most advanced political theory of the time to prevent parties from forming. By separating powers across competing institutions, they thought a majority party would never form. Combine the two insights—a large, diverse republic with a separation of powers—and the hyper-partisanship that felled earlier republics would be averted. Or so they believed.

However, political parties formed almost immediately because modern mass democracy requires them, and partisanship became a strong identity, jumping across institutions and eventually collapsing the republic’s diversity into just two camps.

Yet separation of powers and federalism did work sort of as intended for a long while…

Over the past three decades, both parties have had roughly equal electoral strength nationally, making control of Washington constantly up for grabs. Since 1992, the country has cycled through two swings of the pendulum, from united Democratic government to divided government to united Republican government and back again, with both sides seeking that elusive permanent majority, and attempting to sharpen the distinctions between the parties in order to win it. This also intensified partisanship.

These triple developments—the nationalization of politics, the geographical-cultural partisan split, and consistently close elections—have reinforced one another, pushing both parties into top-down leadership, enforcing party discipline, and destroying cross-partisan deal making. Voters now vote the party, not the candidate. Candidates depend on the party brand. Everything is team loyalty. The stakes are too high for it to be otherwise.

The consequence is that today, America has a genuine two-party system with no overlap, the development the Framers feared most. And it shows no signs of resolving. The two parties are fully sorted by geography and cultural values, and absent a major realignment, neither side has a chance of becoming the dominant party in the near future. But the elusive permanent majority promises so much power, neither side is willing to give up on it.

This fundamentally breaks the system of separation of powers and checks and balances that the Framers created. Under unified government, congressional co-partisans have no incentive to check the president; their electoral success is tied to his success and popularity. Under divided government, congressional opposition partisans have no incentive to work with the president; their electoral success is tied to his failure and unpopularity. This is not a system of bargaining and compromise, but one of capitulation and stonewalling.

 

 

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

4 Responses to Quick hits

  1. Jim Danielson says:

    2) “Even then, the analogy falls short because, among Shi’ite Muslims across the region, Soleimani also exuded the charisma of a religious icon, a holy warrior…”

    The way so many Republicans now view Trump. Without the charisma. Or actually ever serving in the military.

  2. Andrew Oh-Willeke says:

    “9) Good stuff from earlier this year in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the poor job colleges do in getting students to graduate, “Forty percent of students don’t graduate. No one is held accountable. No one is fired. That must change.””

    The main reason that students don’t graduate is that they aren’t ready for college in the first place, not because of what does or doesn’t happen once students arrive on campus.

    At schools where only people who are ready for college are admitted, 90%-95% of the people graduate. Selectivity and the proportion of admitted students who had the necessary math skills to do college level work are the leading predictors of graduation rates (in addition to student finances which is the third).

    For example, CU Boulder has an 87% retention rate which means that the drop out rate for reasons other than lack of academic preparation is probably on the order of 3%-8%.

    What kind of admissions requirements are necessary to achieve that? Average high school GPA of 3.65 (25th percentile is probably around 3.4 or 3.5), 25th percentile SAT score of 1150 (average 1260), and almost nobody is admitted needing remedial work, which primarily means completion of one year of pre-calculus or more advanced math with a B or better.

    But, impose those kinds of standards, and you cut the number of students in classes (and faculty jobs) by something like 50%. Fewer students would free up huge amounts of $$ for the students who are academically ready, potentially solving the problem of insufficient financial aid for those who need it.

    But, until we are willing to convert 50% of four year college seats to associates degree and certificate programs, and are willing to abandon the notion that every kid should go to college, which is what every high school in the country in incentivized to do, retention is going to be poor. It also means slashing degree requirement inflation in the work force. Lots of people, including journalists and school teachers and book keepers, e.g., used to manage fine without four year BA or BS degrees, and the performing arts and athletics could do just fine without degrees (see, e.g., baseball and Billie Eilish).

    From a wonk’s perspective, the hard question is how weak can someone’s academic credentials be to justify admitting them because they have a reasonable chance of graduating (i.e. how accurately can grades, test scores, essays and transcript context predict likelihood of graduating, which is very accurately at the high and low extremes, and in between as you move towards the middle), and what is the most appropriate way to give marginal students a shot to prove themselves without undue wasted student and institutional effort.

    The cutoff is quite stark in most STEM fields with not a lot of middle ground. The muddy middle is much greater in humanities and social sciences and business and education.

    • Andrew Oh-Willeke says:

      For example, CU Boulder has an 87% retention rate which means that the drop out rate **for lack of academic preparation** is probably on the order of 3%-8%. 25th percentile in the easiest to be admitted major (education) is 1080 SAT, 3.39 GPA, 60th percentile class rank, ACT 22, no Ds or Fs in any of the “Minimum Academic Preparation Standards.” https://www.colorado.edu/admissions/first-year/selection

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