Judging Presidents (and Thinking about Institutions)

Because sometimes poorly contructed observations can set a fellow to writing.

PJ Media’s Roger L. Simon was waiting for jury duty and found the waiting room a mix of 1984 and A Brave New World which he then decided was somehow analogous to contemporary America.

He went on to philosophize on that topic:

I find the situation to be too bleak even to be angry at him [Chris Matthews].  Or at Barack Obama who appears to alternate between campaigning and vacationing while the citizens he governs sit on their couches imbibing whatever self-administered soma is a hand.  What else do they have to do?

His presidency has been unquestionably the least successful of my lifetime. Its only accomplishment is a healthcare plan that nobody understands let alone wants.  Americans are polarized as never before.  Mass unemployment has become the new normal.

Back when I was a child of the sixties, revolution appealed to me (a little bit anyway — though not as much as Robert Redford, evidently).  It seemed at the time it might be good to shake things up. Now — in my sixties — I’m rather less interested in government overthrow.

Ironically, America appears to need some kind of revolution now, much more than it did back then.  But not of the kind envisioned by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin or even Bill Ayers or Bernardine Dohrn. More the type envisioned by Thomas Jefferson.  After all, he was the man who said:  “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure. ”

I’m not quite ready to take Jefferson literally.  I’m not even sure he took himself that way.  But I do know the country I live in now is not the one in which I grew up.

In honesty, my first reaction was that Simon was allowing his surrounding to overly influence his mood.  After all, a room full of persons taken from their daily lives to sit around to see if they have to serve on a jury is hardly The Happiest Place on Earth, yes?  Indeed, it is, pretty much by definition, a dour and unhappy place.  As such, making extrapolations about the health and well being of America seems an unwise choice when in such an environment.  (This is advice I, myself, am going to have to take into personal consideration at the end of the month).

Beyond the questioning of the wisdom of connecting such a place with America writ large, my second (and stronger) reaction is that he provides here a mélange of problematic observations.  There are some factual observations that strike me as simply wrong (or, at least, radically incomplete), but there is also a profound level of misunderstanding (willful, perhaps) about the way American government functions (although it is an extremely common malady).

Now, no doubt, many readers will insist on making the following into some sort of Rep. v. Dem., Con. v. Lib analysis.  To me, it isn’t–at least in the sense that my goal is not to defend President Obama, or to join in an argument that sees one side as the handmaiden of the apocalypse while the other is the midwife of salvation.  However, I will also say, by the way, that I am not interested in “both sides do it” false equivalencies.  Rather, I find Simon’s musings to be problematic on a number of levels that I see constantly replicated throughout the commentariat (and in the political class in general).  I have long argued in my academic work that one cannot find a solution until one has adequately diagnosed the problem.  A major problem with most commentary is that it wholly misdiagnoses the problem.

BTW, this post is not as seamless and direct as I would like (mostly because Simon’s opining above is rather all over the place).  It is, if anything, long and begs for even more elaboration, but so it goes.

So, first some specific responses and then a few words on what I think is a key issue.

Some observations generated by the above quote:

1.  “His presidency has been unquestionably the least successful of my lifetime.”  It is typically problematic to make such assessments in the middle of an administration, but it is also true that in historic terms, and like it or not, the PPACA is a significant piece of legislation.  Beyond, however, a legislative report card, I find this observation curious because it makes a direct connection between the presidency and the health of the nation, as well as a direct connection between government policy and economic vitality.  Yet this observation comes from a commentator who tends to eschew the role of government.  Surely if government is the problem, then an ineffective government is a good thing, yes?

Beyond that, I am also struck by the historical context of his comment:  Simon is older than I, but our lifetimes both include Presidents Nixon, Carter, and Bush 43.  One can, of course, making varying arguments about what constitute success and failure in the White House, but is a president who had to resign due to scandal really more successful than Obama?  Further, it isn’t as if the early 70s were the Golden Era of the US economy.  President Carter had any number of issues with his administration, and really, if one is going to hang the after-effects of the 2008 financial crisis on the president who came to office in the middle of it, one kind of has to give some credit for all the fun to the president who was in office at the time, yes?  And Bush does have to take some credit for the lengthy, costly involvements of the US in Afghanistan and, especially, Iraq.  There are other issues as well, but surely it doesn’t take much to raise serious questions about the successfulness of the Bush administration, yes?

2.  “Americans are polarized as never before.”  The thing is, while this is largely correct, i.e., that polarization is high, the degree to which is can be linked to the president is dubious both in terms of causality and historical trends.  The current polarization started with the realignment in the mid-1990s. (See, for example, this Pew Research study:  Partisan Polarization Surges in Bush, Obama Years:  Trends in American Values: 1987-2012).

3.  “Mass unemployment has become the new normal.”  It may well be that have to adjust to a new normal in terms of what we, as a country, find to be normal levels of unemployment.    Of course, since what we want is an unemployment rate around 5% and what we have now is 7.6%, I am not sure that we are talking as radical a change, importantly though it may be, as Simon suggests (at least when making Brave New World allusions and suggesting we may all need to be drugged to get through the horror or it all).

More importantly, I would note the following:

A.  We recently suffered the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression.  It takes a while to recover from that, and the trend line is at least in the right direction, even if the slope of the line is far more gradual than we would like.

Note the following from Calculated Risk:

 

And yes, I know that the U6 rate is higher (but then again, the U6 rate is always higher because it measures something different that the standard unemployment rate).  The basic trend, however, is similar.  But yes, th gap is larger.  This does speak, by the way, to the depth and seriousness of the crisis in question.

Macrotrends.org_U6_Unemployment_Rate

(Source:  Macrotrends).

B.  From a policy-perspective, we have been shedding government jobs during this period in the name of fiscally responsibility.  This has contributed to the slow rate of job recovery.

Writing in March, Floyd Norris noted:

For the 31st consecutive month, the number of government jobs in February was less than it had been a year earlier. There is an employment recovery, but it is confined to the private sector.

The only comparable period in government data, which goes back to 1939, came after World War II, when the government was shrinking for a very good reason. The year-over-year string of declines ended in December 1947 at 30 months. So we have a new record here — a record being set largely because governments, particularly local ones, have been squeezed by a dearth of tax revenues. Year-over-year jobs have been down for 44 consecutive months in local governments.

For the most recent 12 months, private sector employment is up 1.9 percent. Government employment is down 0.5 percent.

These facts have to be taken into consideration when assessing the unemployment numbers.

4.  “But I do know the country I live in now is not the one in which I grew up.”   This type of things comes up from time to time (if not pretty frequently), but I am really not sure what it is exactly supposed to mean.  One would expect that the country is always changing, to one degree or another, and that if the country was, in fact, exactly the same as it was five or so decades ago, that this would be a sign of stagnation.   This would be bad, yes?  Yes, life is different in the 2010s than it was in the 1950s.  On balance, I would think that life is better nor than then (it certainly is for blacks and women, to name two groups).

A Bottom Line Issue

Fundamentally the thing that bothers me about these types of observations, beyond whatever specifics one can argue over, in that they assume massive powers in the hands of the president.  The problem is:  the president is not all-powerful and should not be considered a magic genie or the devil incarnate.  This is especially true when we focus on domestic policy.

Separation of powers means just that:  the powers to make public policy are separated and segmented.  Moreover, in a system of almost total separation of legislative and executive powers into distinct institutions that have little power over one another means that one can never lay the main credit or responsibility over domestic policy outcomes at the feet of a given president.  Blame increases or decreases, by the way, within the degree to which a given president gets, or does not get, what he seeks legislatively (as well in foreign policy decisions, where the president has considerable leeway).

We supposedly worship at the feet of the Framers and yet we refuse to acknowledge how the constitutional order they constructed works:  the Congress makes the laws and sets the budget.  Further, the power to accomplish this feat was divided, equally,* between two halves of the Congress.  Then, rules and traditions in one of those chambers, the Senate, empowers the minority over the majority.  In short:  this is a system that makes policy-making extremely difficult.  And it is, as my co-authors** and I note in out forthcoming book, A Different Democracy:  American Government in a 31-Country Comparison (under contract with Yale University Press),**** a fairly rare institutional configuration.  Indeed, the overall institutional feature of separation of powers and federalism are shared only with, in our data pool, with Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico.  (None of which elect office-holders the way we do, btw).

This is, by the way, where Simon’s reflections on change are relevant:

Ironically, America appears to need some kind of revolution now, much more than it did back then.  But not of the kind envisioned by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin or even Bill Ayers or Bernardine Dohrn. More the type envisioned by Thomas Jefferson.  After all, he was the man who said:  “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure. ”

I’m not quite ready to take Jefferson literally.  I’m not even sure he took himself that way.

To start with an aside:  I think Jefferson did, actually, take it that way at the time (Jefferson had quite the radical idealist streak—not to mention a bit of self-delusion, given that regardless of his role in the American Revolution, he was a landed aristrocrat in all but title).

To the main point:  we don’t need violent revolution, nor is one likely (and yes, I know Simon is not advocating for one).  We do, however, need to take a serious account of out governing institutions.  We have, without a doubt, highly uncompetitive congressional elections (yes, from gerrymandering, but more from the very nature of our system) and therefore a nonresponsive legislative branch.  Further, we have a legislative process that makes actual legislating incredibly difficult, which means that governing is incredibly difficult.

This post is already crazy-long, so I will stop here and with the following observation:  Simon’s argument is predicated heavily on the notion that politicians (e.g., Obama) are at fault (and they, no doubt, deserve some blame).  However, one of the key arguments of the Framers (especially Madison in Federalist 51) was that we cannot rely on the goodness or politicians to fix government (“If men were angels, no government would be necessary”), but rather that we need to construct institutions that would help politicians govern better.  If we are having serious governance problems (and we are), then the logic of Madison should lead us not to simply blame the politicians, but make us considered the possibility that the institutions in which they operate are also at fault.  However, we are not having such a conversation.

—-

*Yes, the House has the power to initiate money bills, but that does not change the basic point:  the two chambers are co-equal in terms of legislation.  The Senate has more sway, in many ways, since it is easier to bottle up legislative initiatives in that chamber.

**Matthew Shugart, Arend Lijphart, and Bernard Grofman.

***Draft chapters can be viewed here until we submit the final manuscript early this summer..

FILED UNDER: Politics 101, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. michael reynolds says:

    Simon’s an idiot.

    But I do know the country I live in now is not the one in which I grew up.” This type of things comes up from time to time (if not pretty frequently), but I am really not sure what it is exactly supposed to mean.

    I can provide translation. It means: I’m old. I’m seeing death up ahead. My powers are diminished. And the glory and universal acclaim I had somehow convinced myself were my due are nowhere in evidence. There’s a reason for all of this,and it isn’t my own mediocrity. I’m pretty sure it’s the fault of the black guy.

    I understand the getting old thing. I think it’s particularly devastating to people who in earlier life managed to avoid introspection, and in most cases lacked either an imagination or a sense of humor. Rigid, dull, humorless, ideologically-driven folks have put themselves on the path to senility. They’re angry that they are no longer relevant. They’re angry that life is doing to them precisely what life always does with 100% predictability if you live long enough. My God, you mean I’m going to be old and weak and slow and then dead? Me? Surely not me!

    It’s the get-off-my-lawn syndrome. Rage, rage against the future that won’t have you in a starring role.

  2. stonetools says:

    Simon translated:
    “The country has gone to hell since the nig- uh, black man got in the White House with his hip hop, Kenyan Mooslim ideas. Take national health insurance-who can understand it? What’s that you say, maybe the Heritage Foundation-on which the ACA was based, ?”

    “Well, what about unemployment? Its so high…. What’s that you say- we have high unemployment because of a financial crisis that began on the Republican’s watch? ”

    “This country is not the one I grew up in!”

    You mean the one of segregated lunch counters, back door abortions, criminal prosecution of gay sex, and second class status for women? That country?

    “We need a revolution”

    It’s time to take up arms to overthrow the usurper, since democratic means didn’t work, despite our best attempts to suppress minority voters.

  3. Ron Beasley says:

    Good take down of Simon although that is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. @michael reynolds: is right-he is a bitter angry old man and an idiot. I’m a bit older, 67, Truman was president when I was born. I was a senior in high school when Kennedy was assassinated. The best president in my lifetime was without a doubt Eisenhower but even he had some flaws.
    As for:

    “I do know the country I live in now is not the one in which I grew up.”

    I’m not going to say this is Simon’s reason but for 20+% of the population this means there is a black man in the White House. The polarization issue is also tied to this.
    Societies change, that’s normal, what Simon is saying is he doesn’t like the way it’s changing which is common for those who were comfortable in the “good old days.”

  4. Andre Kenji says:

    We supposedly worship at the feet of the Framers and yet we refuse to acknowledge how the constitutional order they constructed works:

    I would not blame the Framers. The Framers made a compromise, and many compromises were made after that. There is nothing talking about Public Education or highways on the Constitution, but, yet, there is a consensus dealing with that.

    On the other hand, the nice thing about the Framers is that they were such a group of diverse people that they can be used to support any idea, from the crazy to the completely normal.

  5. Andre Kenji says:

    Then, rules and traditions in one of those chambers, the Senate, empowers the minority over the majority.

    The upper chamber of Legislatures all over the world empowers a minority – some countries, like India and Italy, allows the direct nomination of Senators. The problem is the lower house of the Legislature, that ALSO empowers a minority over a majority.

  6. @Andre Kenji: I was referring to the fact that the Senate chamber itself is effectively controlled by a minority of its members.

    But yes, the very nature of second chambers is that they tend to over-represent minority voices.

  7. anjin-san says:

    But I do know the country I live in now is not the one in which I grew up.

    Simon actually appears to lack the insight to realize that anyone in the history of our country who lived to see 50 could say the same. Of course, a lot of us simply say “that’s life, things change – some for the better, some for the worse”. Conservatives, on the other had, will perceive themselves as somehow being victims – dragged down not simply by their own shortcomings and the normal gravity associated with the passage of time, but by the carnage wrought by liberals, especially the dark skinned fellow in the White House.

    Here we have another instance of utter drivel passing as insight on the right. We can be certain that the bitheads and Jenos of the world will read this and think it is the wisdom of the ages.

  8. Dave says:

    I am unsure of why so many people use that Jefferson quote. It was used to basically disregard Shay’s Rebllion, which was used as a major excuse to concentrate more power to the Federal Government by getting rid of the Articles of Confederation. Are they advocating rebellion too further the power of the Federal Government? Or more likely find the quote to be cute and use it while disregarding the historical context of it. I guess we’ll find out if the government stops paying veterans.

  9. stonetools says:

    @Ron Beasley: @michael reynolds:

    One of the good things about this site is that it shows that not all older white men are bitter conservatives who want to turn the clock back to 1953 (if not 1853).

    Thanks, guys .

  10. Andre Kenji says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I was referring to the fact that the Senate chamber itself is effectively controlled by a minority of its members.

    Yes, but I think that you are underestimating the fact that the filibuster can be pretty useful for party that controls the Senate – it allows Democrats in Red States to avoid difficult votes, it also allow the Senate Leadership to appease their base while avoiding votes that in fact they don´t want to have.

  11. @Andre Kenji: It can work that way at times, no doubt. But the bottom line remains that the entire nature of legislating in the Senate has to take into the minority is way that is unique (at least that I can think of) globally. This is, actually, an even more important aspect of legislating than is appreciated–even with all the media on filibusters of late.

  12. stonetools says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I was referring to the fact that the Senate chamber itself is effectively controlled by a minority of its members.

    You should understand that to Mr. Simon, that’s a feature, not a bug, since it enables the real Americans in the Senate to thwart the dastardly plot of Silas Lynch’s grandson to destroy America.

  13. @stonetools: I honestly don’t know what Simon thinks of the rules of the Senate (although I can guess). My point, vis-a-vis Simon, is to point out that if one is of the opinion that America is not functioning optimally, one has to honestly assess the degree to which our institutions contribute to the problems (and it is something that he, and many others, refuse to even consider).

  14. michael reynolds says:

    @stonetools:
    I was just trying to think of anything I wish was still like the 60s or 70s (my formative years) and all I could come up with was that we didn’t have deadly STDs. But aside from that? I vastly prefer the present and hope to enjoy a bit of the future as well.

    Of course by then it’ll be the present. Hmmm. Wow. Mind blown.

  15. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    Shorter Simon: “Jury duty sucks. Thanks, Obama!

  16. Andre Kenji says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: That´s because the Upper House of the Legislative tends to have very peculiar characteristics in many countries. Australia and Mexico have at large seats in the Senate, in France they have the indirect elections via local officials, there are the seats for former Presidents in Italy.

    The general idea is that the Upper Chamber of the Legislative should be composed by an elite to counter the Lower Chamber, that should represent the people(That´s why I think that equal representation in the Senate – each state having the same number of Senators – is a bad idea)*. One can argue that the filibuster should be a part of that framework and that the role of the Senate is to slow Legislation(I think that the low productivity of the House of the Representatives is something much more uncommon than what happens in the Senate).

    -* I know, that´s some pretty basic stuff to say to a Pol Sci professor, but it´s better than Roger L. Simon platitudes.

  17. Andre Kenji says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I was just trying to think of anything I wish was still like the 60s or 70s (my formative years) and all I could come up with was that we didn’t have deadly STDs.

    Well, at least in the 60s and 70s there was no internet, so, no one had to read whatever Roger L. Simon was writing.

  18. stonetools says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Steve, if you were God Emperor, how would you change the institution of Congress?
    How many House seats?
    How many Senate seats?
    Filibuster or no?

  19. @stonetools: Were I God Emperor, I would expand the size of the House, because the ratio represented to representative is too small. At a minimum I would adopt the Wyoming Rule, which would make all districts the same size (pop-wise) as the least populous state (which is Wyoming). I forget what number that gives (I had a post at PoliBlog that detailed this information, but lost it when I screwed up the site). I will work on a new version.

    If we follow the cube root rule that some political scientists suggest (that the optimal size of the leg is the cube root rule of the pop, which would put it at over 600.

    At the moment, my inclination would be to abolish the Senate, being God Emperor and all,. However, if we kept it, I would do away with 2-per and introduce at least some moderate proportionality.

    I would do away with the filibuster entirely.

  20. (Clearly there is a difference between pure fantasy and the kinds of actual reforms one would argue in favor of. Further, each decision requires more careful elaboration than a blog comment box allows).

  21. stonetools says:

    The Wyoming Rule sounds good to me . Wikipedia:

    A House size of 569 would be required to implement the Wyoming Rule, based on the 2000 Census results.[1] However, the 2010 United States Census saw Wyoming’s population increase at a greater rate than that of the U.S. as a whole; as a result, the required House size to implement the Wyoming Rule was reduced to 547.

    I would settle for that and the abolition of the filibuster. Proportionality in the Senate will never happen because the Holy Founding Fathers (PBUT) decreed the Perfect Number of Senators Per State as Two . Not even a God Emperor can change that. :-).

  22. john personna says:

    Good post Steven, but I’m afraid we’ve just entered a political silly-season, and reasoned essay won’t really stop the circus.

    The “meta level” seems to be “what crazy stuff can we talk about in April 2013?”

  23. @john personna: Thanks. Of course, are we ever not in a political silly season these days?

    *sigh*

  24. wr says:

    @michael reynolds: “I was just trying to think of anything I wish was still like the 60s or 70s (my formative years) and all I could come up with was that we didn’t have deadly STDs.”

    It was the great period for Marvel Comics. American movies were much better. And Paul Kantner/Grace Slick were putting out a great series of albums under various band names…

  25. anjin-san says:

    Music was much better. The mid twentieth century was fantastic for design/style/architecture. Movies were much better, TV much worse.

  26. Tran says:

    In both France and Great Britain the Upper House can only delay legislation, not stop it.

    In Germany, only legislation affecting the states directly needs the consent of the Upper House (about 70% of laws). Also, the members of the Upper House are actually the “Governors” of the states, which are elected by the state parliaments. This mostly eliminates “pork barrel” from legislation, since the reelection of the “Governors” is dependent on their political achievements in their state, not on their ability to secure federal money.

    Also interesting: In the UK, if the government is unable to pass a budget, it falls. There are either fresh elections or the Queen can invite someone to try to form a new government/governing coalition that can pass a budget. That would probably put an end to any debt ceiling/government shut-down bullshit.

    I find it remarkably that the serious flaws of US political institutions seems to generate so little discussion in the USA. The US constitution and the government it established was a groundbreaking achievement… over 200 years ago. It has held up remarkably well in some parts, but in other parts it has not aged well. Why not look around at newer constitutions/institutions and try to adapt some of their successful models?

  27. @Tran:

    I find it remarkably that the serious flaws of US political institutions seems to generate so little discussion in the USA. The US constitution and the government it established was a groundbreaking achievement… over 200 years ago. It has held up remarkably well in some parts, but in other parts it has not aged well. Why not look around at newer constitutions/institutions and try to adapt some of their successful models?

    This.

  28. (That we do not even discuss these things, save in very small enclaves, speaks to a lack of awareness of the rest of the world and too much faith in American institutions just because they are American).

  29. stonetools says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    The reason is that most people think the system works (“They love their representative”) and “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Also too, the near-worship of “The Founders” and their “Holy Document” .Lots of conservatives refer reverently to the “Constitution as a kind of unchanging Scripture, and identify all political problems as stemming from a departure from the “original intent” of the “founders”. If some of this sounds like religious talk, well it describes just how many people think of the Constitution.

  30. @stonetools: Indeed. And, further, the study of politics in the US is divided between Americanists (who study America) and Comparativists (who study the rest of the world). This is actually something we argue against in our book.

    The news is worse: global politics only matters when it impacts US interests (e.g., NK).

  31. Andre Kenji says:

    There is no discussion about institutions because the people that holds power have no interest in changing the status quo. No one talks about changing the size of the House(And that´s a big and potential disadvantage for Democrats) because that would mean the dilution of power of the people that are already there.

    By the way, unless there is interest from the people that are holding power political reform is always a difficult issue. In Mexico they are talking about that for years, the same thing in Brazil about Constitutional Reforms.

  32. Andre Kenji says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: There is also another factor: many people in the academia, magazines and think tanks cannot read in any language other than English.

  33. @Andre Kenji: It is true that reform itself is hard because of entrenched power. However, there is essentially zero public discussion of this in America. For example, electoral reform in the UK is hard, but it has been in and out of public discussion for decades. American don’t even know that there are any other ways of electing office-holders than the ones we have.

    And yes, lack of other language skills are an issue, but that is insufficient to explain why Americans are utterly ignorant of of how the entire rest of the world functions (including near-neighbor Canada or any number of other English-speaking countries).

    Actually, I think the size of the US and its relative isolation is more significant than the language issue (and, in fact, size and relative isolation helps promote mono-lingualism as the norm).

  34. Andre Kenji says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    1-) In the UK the issue only came to discussion because the Liberal-Democrats, the biggest losers in the current arrangement, formed a coalition with the Tories. The Tories, one of the winners in the current arrangement, did everything to keep the discussion silent – the proposed reform of the House of Lords was sunk by a Tory Rebellion in June last year.

    And frankly, there is nothing more anachronistic than the House of Lords.

    2-) Understanding a foreign language allows you to understand foreign cultures. The problem is not that few Americans can speak a Foreign language, but that so many people in the elite does not do so.

    3-) It´s very common to find articles about public policy in the US that ignores what happens in foreign countries. It´s hard to find people using foreign examples to make a preposition, and it´s not rare to see people proposing ideas with a poor record abroad.

  35. @Andre Kenji:

    1. The issue of electoral reform has at least been an item of discussion off and on in the UK since, if not longer than that. This is rather different than that US.

    2. I am not arguing against the value of learning a foreign language. I simply saying that while it would help if more Americans learned a foreign language, the lack of such knowledge is not enough to explain the general lack of attention to the rest of the world.

    3. Aren’t we simply agreeing on that point?

  36. And to be clear: I am not talking about Lords reform, but specifically electoral reform. This did lead, at least, to the failed referendum on AV.

  37. ernieyeball says:

    Mr. Taylor writes: “On balance, I would think that life is better… (it certainly is for blacks and women, to name two groups).”
    To wit, the good old days as reported by the International Hearld Tribune 50 (very short) years ago today. I was 15 and I remember this well.

    1963 Police and Dogs Disperse Marchers
    BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Club-swinging patrolmen and police dogs waded into a crowd of 600 Negroes marching to city hall for a Palm Sunday “prayer pilgrimage” today [April 7]. Twenty-three Negroes were arrested. As two police wagons pulled away with the praying Negroes, including the young brother of the Rev. Martin Luther King jr., a fight erupted among the onlookers. Apparently the riot erupted when a Negro took a swipe at a police dog with a knife. The dog attacked and about 200 Negroes started to come to the man’s rescue. The crowd quickly dispersed when police loosed more dogs. Earlier, as police cordoned off a block fronting the city hall, a Negro who said “I’m waiting for the prayer service” was arrested for refusing to move on under police orders. Mayor Arthur Hanes said of the “prayer pilgrimage”: “This is Communism in its purest form. These people are nothing but Communist agitators. They are turning peaceful citizens into raw savages.” This was the fifth straight day of desegregation demonstration.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/08/opinion/global/100-75-50-years-ago.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

  38. stonetools says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Well, that’s American exceptional-ism for you. The rest of the world can learn from America about democracy: we have nothing to learn from the rest of the world about democracy. Its strictly a one way street.

  39. Andre Kenji says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    And to be clear: I am not talking about Lords reform, but specifically electoral reform. This did lead, at least, to the failed referendum on AV.

    Yes, but that´s because the Liberal-Democrats demanded the referendum from the Tories, and they had obvious partisan interests on that.

  40. Andre Kenji says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Aren’t we simply agreeing on that point?

    That´s the beauty of the whole thing.

  41. anjin-san says:

    @ wr

    In the mid-80s, Martin Balin’s studio was right up the road from my place in San Anselmo. I used to hang out and watch him jam with Katner and Jorma. Good stuff.

  42. anjin-san says:

    @ ernieyeball

    The 50’s & 60’s were a wonderful time to be a white man with money. Pretty darned good for working class white men too. I know my dad had a wonderful time, he was pretty near the top of the food chain. For others, not so much. It’s kind of amazing to think that a TV show about Mary Richards, a single career woman, was edgy stuff in the early 70’s.

  43. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    My suggestion for jury duty: When either the prosecutor or defense attorney asks you what your job is, tell them that you teach university students to form arguments based on facts. logic, and rhetorical strategies. It always works for me. I’ve been called for jury duty three times and excused three times.

    If you want to serve on the jury, tell them what they want to hear.

  44. john personna says:

    Re. comparisons, a surprising article from the dour Nouriel Roubini|:

    The U.S. economy has its problems, but it’s still better than everywhere else.

    As noted above, Thanks Obama!

  45. Blue Galangal says:

    @anjin-san:

    It’s kind of amazing to think that a TV show about Mary Richards, a single career woman, was edgy stuff in the early 70′s.

    And yet what “edgy” TV do we have today that approaches Archie Bunker, MTM, or (heaven forbid) Maude? We have lots of sex and violence but the political commentary that everyone watches – rich, poor, white, black, liberal, conservative? Nada. (Well, maybe we all watch Vikings. I dunno.)

    In that sense, I think MTM (et al.) was edgier TV than nowadays just because of the social issues it portrayed, sometimes unflinchingly, on a weekly basis, and the number of people, percentage wise, who watched it.

  46. Tran says:

    A nice article which somehow forgets about Canada or Australia. But the US is better of than many other places. And aside from the Euro problem itself, austerity in Europe might be necessary, but it really harmed economic growth. Maybe Republicans are right that the US needs austerity to avoid a huge debt crisis, but insisting that austerity somehow will lead to increased growth in the fact that this is demonstrably false in the rest of the world is rather dishonest.

    This is somehow similar to Belgium, where the inability to form a government for a record time meant there was nobody who could implement austerity, which led to Belgium having a higher growth in both GDP and debt than it’s neighbors. So the gridlock inherent in the US system was probably a blessing in disguise, which is kind of ironic.

  47. Tsar Nicholas says:

    This is the best first graf of any blog post I’ve seen in quite some time:

    PJ Media’s Roger L. Simon was waiting for jury duty and found the waiting room a mix of 1984 and A Brave New World which he then decided was somehow analogous to contemporary America.

    I love that.

    As someone who’s actually picked juries I’ve always felt the venires were crosses between “Night of the Living Dead” and “The King of Comedy.”

    In any event, obviously the US is not as dystopian as “1984” or “A Brave New World.” At least not yet.

    But when you’ve got a media that isn’t a media but instead is a propaganda arm for one faction of one political party that’s a colossal problem. Intractable. And it only get will worse as time marches on. And when you’ve got education systems that are about pushing partisan agendas, if not outright political indoctrination, funded directly or subsidized indirectly by taxpayer dollars, that’s a colossal problem. And when you’ve devolved to lock step political voting by pure racial and tribal identities — through which millions of citizens are voting de facto to remain unemployed, dependent and in poverty — that’s a major problem. Again, intractable.

    The prospects are bleak. What’s amazing is that so many of the usual suspects in the media-academe-politico cabal nevertheless continue to whistle past the proverbial graveyard.

  48. Barry says:

    In the end, all right-wing propaganda is pure projection – note how he starts: “Or at Barack Obama who appears to alternate between campaigning and vacationing …”

    This is during a presidency which has far, far fewer vacation days than the previous one. And that previous one looked upon things like wars as campaign stunts (‘Mission Accomplished’).

  49. anjin-san says:

    @ Barry

    “Or at Barack Obama who appears to alternate between campaigning and vacationing …”

    It’s an accurate statement. Sort of. If you watch Fox, Obama appears to alternate between campaigning and vacationing. He may also put in a bit of time sending texts to gangsta rappers and preparing the articles of surrender to present to North Korea…

  50. reid says:

    @Barry: I’m surprised he didn’t slip in a few birth certificate and teleprompter cracks. Judging from the excerpts, he’s just another deluded wingnut that writes better than most. Kudos to Steven for critiquing him, but it probably doesn’t even deserve the attention.

  51. wr says:

    @anjin-san: Very cool.

  52. C. Clavin says:

    “…But when you’ve got a media that isn’t a media but instead is a propaganda arm for one faction of one political party that’s a colossal problem. Intractable. And it only get will worse as time marches on. And when you’ve got education systems that are about pushing partisan agendas, if not outright political indoctrination, funded directly or subsidized indirectly by taxpayer dollars, that’s a colossal problem. And when you’ve devolved to lock step political voting by pure racial and tribal identities — through which millions of citizens are voting de facto to remain unemployed, dependent and in poverty — that’s a major problem…”

    Well…yeah…except not one thing you’ve written there applies to reality.
    As for you picking juries…yeah sure.
    What sap would ever hire you to defend them?
    The poor fool must still be doing time.

  53. Andy says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    But the bottom line remains that the entire nature of legislating in the Senate has to take into the minority is way that is unique (at least that I can think of) globally. This is, actually, an even more important aspect of legislating than is appreciated–even with all the media on filibusters of late.

    Well sure the US is unique. After all, we are a union of sovereign states. It’s not a coincidence that equal suffrage in the Senate is an exemption to the normal amendment process.

    We do, however, need to take a serious account of out governing institutions. We have, without a doubt, highly uncompetitive congressional elections (yes, from gerrymandering, but more from the very nature of our system) and therefore a nonresponsive legislative branch. Further, we have a legislative process that makes actual legislating incredibly difficult, which means that governing is incredibly difficult.

    To put it a bit crudely, if one feeds cat shit into a meat grinder, one shouldn’t blame the grinder when hamburger fails to come out the other end. IOTW, I agree the legislative branch is failing,but the problem isn’t institutional. Our governing institutions have not changed all that much and neither has the legislative process. You talk about “the very nature of our system” as some kind of problem or obstacle – well, when did it become an obstacle and what institutional changes caused the problems you want to correct?

    And yeah, our elections have pretty much always had a high degree of uncompetitiveness. That’s normal for us. You’ll have to do better than simply assert this is a cause of our present predicament because contemporary elections are arguably more competitive than they used to be – candidates are rarely picked by elites making deals in smoking rooms these days to give just one example.

    I would offer a different explanation. As a people our political wordview changed. We used to be a nation where politics was more about loyalty to the local community, institution or state. It was a politics of patronage, clientelism and personal loyalty. Today politics is more about distinct issues and ideology. The result is programmatic political parties that are no longer the “big tent” parties they used to be. Is this a change that can be blamed on institutions or the structure of our constitutional system? I think not.

  54. @Andy:

    After all, we are a union of sovereign states.

    Well, except that they are not actually sovereign states.

    Can they issue their own currency?

    Can they raise their own armies?

    Can they send and receive ambassadors?

    Can they leave the union whenever they do choose?

    The answer to all the above, and any number of other key questions, is no.

    Also, can their law be nullified by a higher power? Yes.

    The states are have a limited sovereignty in a narrow sphere. They are not a collection of sovereign states.

    our elections have pretty much always had a high degree of uncompetitiveness. That’s normal for us.

    This is true. However, that doesn’t make it a good thing.

  55. I will agree, by the way, that part of the issue is the shift in the nature of the parties.

    The historical anomaly that gave us conservative southern Democrats isn’t coming back, however.

  56. Rob in CT says:

    What’s hilarious about the Tsar bit that Clavin quoted is that it’s more applicable to the Right than the Left right now. Maybe the Tsar doesn’t see the irony.

  57. stonetools says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    will agree, by the way, that part of the issue is the shift in the nature of the parties.

    The historical anomaly that gave us conservative southern Democrats isn’t coming back, however.

    The disappearance of that admittedly long lasting historical anomaly and the sorting of the parties along ideological lines, has really thrown the political culture of the country into confusion. The nostalgia for those halcyon days of “bipartisan coalitions ” built by “presidential leadership” is virtually a religion among the older pundits. To be honest, they sound like those old codgers reminiscing about 25 cent gasoline and 5 cent stamps. “That’s nice, grandpa, but those days ain’t coming back.”
    Frankly, it would be great if someone were just to tell the Bob Schieffers and Bob Woodwards of the world the facts of life, but no one seems to be willing to do that.

    I might add that one Barack Obama has contributed to this. He was a big prophet of the religion of “reasonable bipartisanism ” and sold himself in 2008 as the President uniquely qualified to bring it about. It took him three years to realize he was dead wrong about that, and he has had to refashion his rhetoric (“two visions” instead of “We are one United States”).
    Realistically, we are not going to get efficient government at the Federal level again until there is one party control of the executive and the legislative branch, including a filibuster proof Senate super majority. That means spinning our wheels and a series of budgetary “crises” for the next three years, while the pundits wring their hands and whine about what LBJ would do.

  58. Andy says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Well yes, it’s self-evident that states do not have complete sovereignty – that was all part of the “deal” in joining the union. But States are not mere administrative divisions of the federal government, as is the case in most other countries, and what limits do exist are less than any other industrialized nation. States do, explicitly, have sovereignty over many areas of governance even when they defer to the federal government for whatever reason. So when you say their law can be nullified by a “higher power” that is true only in limited circumstances. The federal government cannot compel state action in many areas except through incentives which boils down to federal dollars. (And there are even limits on that as seen by the recent SCOTUS decision on the PPACA).

    By the way, you are incorrect about armies – states can raise their own military forces and did so for many years. They chose not to today but they could again if they wanted to.

    This is true. However, that doesn’t make it a good thing.

    Didn’t say it was. However I don’t think institutional fixes are either likely to happen or likely to fix this particular issue. Ultimately, this is something the people have to demand and fight for and too often they simply aren’t that concerned.

    The historical anomaly that gave us conservative southern Democrats isn’t coming back, however.

    Maybe not, but the point remains that systemic change isn’t going to happen anytime soon nor do I think it would do anything about the shift in political parties. Even if the country were not divided as it currently is, such change would still be extraordinarily difficult. The call for reforming apportionment in the Senate, for example, is, to put it charitably, simply wishful thinking. One simply can’t ignore the last line in article V, for example. To me it’s more useful to deal with likely political realities that pipe dreams.

  59. Andre Kenji says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Well, except that they are not actually sovereign states.

    They are more similar to sovereign states than in other countries. That´s the biggest difference between the states in Brazil and Mexico and in the United States.

  60. Elizebeth J says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    Writing off Obama’s unpopularity to racism is much easier than dealing with the truth or of the legitimacy of his claims. On one hand: who better than the lefties with their long storied history of racism to know a racist when they see one (usually at a KKK meeting) and on the other hand you have the election of a mixed race President that hysterical cries of racism by the party of Byrd at the party of Lincoln and MLK …lol.

    I was born during Reagans 2nd term and I can easily state that Obama has been the worst and most divisive President in my lifetime. As a student of history I think you would have to go back as far as Wilson to find a President guilty of treasonous acts that come close to Obama’s (or maybe just Bill Clinton). Carter was bad but ineffective while Obama’s Chi-town style of politics make him both bad and dangerous.

  61. SKI says:

    @Elizebeth J:

    I was born during Reagans 2nd term and I can easily state that Obama has been the worst and most divisive President in my lifetime.

    1) You are REALLY young.
    2) You being able to “easily state” it, doesn’t make it remotely true.

    That you think there have been “treasonous acts” compels my morbid curiosity to inquire: What exactly do you think he has done that is treasonous?

  62. Elizabeth says:

    This not an exhaustive list by any means and Obama isn’t the first President to sell out this countries interests to foreign powers…Bush did it, Clinton most assuredly did it…. as did every US President going back to Wilson and probably beyond. We no longer control what happens in this country because our leaders have sold themselves and us to the global banking cabal who control our currency. Ron Paul certainly had his faults but one of them wasn’t dishonesty…we will never recover our position as the leaders of the free world until we rid our government of those people with divided loyalties and dual citizenship

    Here you go:

    1. Perpetrating acts of fraud, perjury and conspiracy in his refusal to confirm his lawful eligibility to serve as president under the U.S. Constitution Article II, Section 1, constituting impeachable offenses of high crimes and misdemeanors adumbrated in U.S. Constitution Article II, Section 4;

    2. Surrendering sovereign U.S. war-making to foreign powers and international authorities by attacking Libya without consulting Congress, in violation of U.S. Constitution Article 1, Section 8 and U.S. Code Title 50, r 33:1541-1548;

    3. Accepting foreign title and office while acting as U.S. President and without consulting Congress when in 2009, Obama assumed the Chairmanship of the UN Security Council, the international body responsible for declaring war on behalf of the UN, in violation of U.S. Constitution Article I, Section 9;

    4. Making bribery attempts in word and in deed, as Obama administration offered bribes to at least three Federal candidates for office: Joe Sestak, Andrew Romanoff and Jim Matheson, in violation of U.S. Code Title 18, Section 201;

    5. Defying a Federal Court Order by refusing to halt the unconstitutional implementation of the “Patient Healthcare and Affordable Care Act of 2010, popularly known as “ObamaCare”, in violation of U.S. Constitution Article II, Section 3, and Article III, Sections 1 & 2;

    6. Defying a Federal Court Order by refusing to grant lawful deep water drilling permits, in violation of U.S. Constitution Article II, Section 3, and Article III, Sections 1 & 2;

    7. Executive Branch creation and implementation of regulations asserting unconstitutional force of Federal law on matters explicitly rejected by or contrary to the will and intent of Congress, specifically the EPA implementation of Cap and Trade, in violation of U.S. Constitution Article I, Section 1 and Section 8;

    8. Refusing to secure our broken borders from illegal alien invasion, international criminal incursion, and terrorist cadre penetration, in violation of U.S. Constitution, Article III, Section 3 and Article IV, Section 4;

    Whistle Blowers: Barack Obama Violates Federal Court Order ~ Charlotte N C. Indictments And Impeachment.

    9. Executive Branch malfeasance and impeding the administration of justice by preventing the U.S. Department of Justice from investigating crimes committed for the direct benefit of the President by presidential associates including: voter intimidation at the hands of the New Black Panthers and ACORN election fraud, in violation of U.S. Constitution Article II, Section 3, and U.S. Criminal Code Section 135, (Comp. St. § 10305);

    10. Direct mobilizing and funding of mob violence, sedition and insurrection, as witnessed in Wisconsin, by the President’s own reelection campaign group Organizing for America, and including open statements of incitement to the insurrection by the President himself, in violation of U.S.Penal Code, Chapter 115, Section 2383;

    11. Executive Branch usurpation of lawmaking powers voiding duly enacted legislation of Congress by improperly preventing the U.S. Department of Justice from defending established Federal law – specifically the Defense of Marriage Act, in violation of U.S. Constitution Article II, Section 3;

    12. Adhering to the enemies of the United States, giving them aid and comfort, as witnessed by consorting with, supporting and installing to powerful Federal positions persons who in writing, word and deed have called for and promoted the overthrow of America’s constitutionally guaranteed Republican form of government, and the overthrow of the United States Constitution; including but not limited to William Ayers, Bernadette Dohrn, Cass Sunstein, John Holdren, Van Jones, Dalia Mogahed, Harold Koh, and Eric Holder, in violation of U.S. Constitution, Article III, Section IV and U.S. Penal Code, Section 2385.

    This