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An as of yet unnamed “Digest”

As I’m sure close readers of my social media may have noticed, I tend to post a fairly high number of news articles there every day. Due in part to both a suggestion from a friend and a desire to ease myself back into the flow of actually writing on a regular basis, I’m considering starting a daily “interesting articles” (not to be confused with the latest news, necessarily) digest, with some commentary on each article, thus making room on your feeds for what’s really important; photos and Buzzfeed virality. I’m piloting this here to see if there is any interest for this format, and possible tweaks to the tone or topic selection. The normal place for these will be here, “Another Note in the Cacophony” (https://anoteinthec.wordpress.com/) which a few of you may remember as my highly intermittent blog. The links to these will be posted on my feed.

April 2

We have an Iran “framework” and there was another terrorist attack. Busy day. Here’s what’s interesting:

  • The Robert Menendez indictments were made official yesterday afternoon. Here are a couple of particularly notable facts we have seen in the response; New Jersey Democrats have closed ranks around him, and tightly. After the announcement of the indictment, statement after statement of support came from state politicians, and from the state’s other senator, Cory Booker, formerly of Newark mayor/Twitter municipal superhero fame. His statement of support is noteworthy because Menendez in some ways is a product of the rough and tumble Democratic ethnic-urban machine politics that Booker has spent much of his career positioning himself to the polar opposite of (see the excellent Street Fight, re his first race for Newark mayor). Then again, there is a surprising amount of support across Washington for him, so far. When news of the indictments was first leaked to CNN last month, many Republicans openly mused about whether Menendez was being targeted by the Obama administration due to his lukewarm stance on Obama’s negotiations with Iran. Menendez, in his impassioned statement on the charges last night, alluded to political motivations for the prosecutions as well.
  • National Journal reports that Jeb Bush has taken to having staff record comments he makes in closed door sessions with donors—the kind of environment in which Romney’s infamous 47% remarks were secretly taped—in an attempt to have a hard record of his remarks, and to have evidence with which to push back against the inevitable leaks from these sorts of sessions. Interestingly, the piece also refers to the campaign’s intent to remind Jeb that all of his remarks in front of audiences are effectively on the record in some form.
  • Politico’s excellent media critic Jack Shafer points out that the “Fox Primary,” such as it is, has far less influence on the eventual Republican nominee than most media observers give it credit for. While it has employed a staggering number of presidential hopefuls, most of the ones that largely owed their viability to the megaphone of the channel lost, and lost badly. This is just further indication of a fairly hard to argue fact; Fox News, while a reliable source of things for left of center bloggers to get outraged about, is not making serious inroads in the views of those that don’t already share the channel’s worldview. Again, for good measure, the ratings of its biggest programs are dwarfed by those of any one of the three evening newscasts, which these same new media journalists and commentators eagerly declare is approaching an end.
  • The Columbia Journalism Review notes that most of the coverage of the “religious freedom” bills is taking opponents and proponents at face value, and not bothering to investigate the actual thicket of legal issues both the Indiana and Arkansas bills raise. As is usual, it is much easier to cover the political conflict than it is to make conclusions about the underlying issue, as the former is just giving both sides, and the latter requires essentially adjudicating who is “right” about the laws.
  • And in something I haven’t completely finished reading: Capital New York on why it costs so much to build infrastructure in the New York area. This is an issue that has bedeviled the city for years, and is vital in terms of solving the transit challenges ahead.

And finally, for an offbeat feature. George Pataki, former Republican governor of New York State, has been making very loud noises about running for president as a Republican in the 2016 cycle. Close followers of the news may remember that he was also sort-of in the mix for the 2008 cycle, but eventually decided not to run. These noises have not been taken seriously by most (one political scientist and commentator quoted in a Daily News article about Pataki dismissed his inclinations by implying they were likely the product of psychoactive substances) but they exist, and they will be tracked here, in the form of something I’m creatively calling #Patakiwatch.

  • There is just one entry in today’s #Patakiwatch: Bloomberg and other sources are reporting that Pataki has set up shop in New Hampshire for his super-PAC, opening offices and naming a “steering committee” in the state. The New Hampshire Union Leader reports that the committee is composed of, “two state senators, some prominent business people, and local activists.” The name of the super-PAC? “We the People, Not Washington.”

That’s all.

The following was originally published at the Urban Times on March 22, 2013. it is posted here for archival purposes.

A look at the racial composition of a Tea Party rally like this one goes a long way to explaining why the black conservative is still a noteworthy phenomenon in American politics. (Fibonacci Blue/ Flickr)

A look at the racial composition of a Tea Party rally like this one goes a long way to demonstrating why the black conservative is still a noteworthy phenomenon in American politics. (Source: Fibonacci Blue via Flickr)

A look at one of the most maligned, mocked, and misunderstood tropes in American politics.

The most unusual thing about the “black conservative”, or the “black Republican” is that it is a uniquely American phenomenon. While conservative parties in other nations, such as in the United Kingdom or in Canada, have had issues with appealing to minority voters, the inability of the American Republican party to do so is on an entirely different level.

Chief among the minority groups the Republican party has been unable to connect with are African-Americans, who have shunned the party by margins of over 80 percent in presidential elections since the political realignment of the sixties—and this is without looking at the two most recent cycles that actually featured an African-American candidate on the Democratic ticket.

This overwhelming black support of the Democratic Party makes the black Republican such an unusual cultural phenomenon. Every Republican National Convention, for example, is marked by references—comedic and otherwise—to the lack of black delegates. Even the HBO program Girls, that oft-referenced cultural lodestone of the chattering classes, used a black conservative love interest as a way to acknowledge criticism of the cast’s whiteness while also keeping the audience off balance.

However, despite its cultural place, the black conservative is for many simply a political prop, deployed for an obvious ideological purpose when needed but otherwise ignored. To see a broader view, one needs to look at the history of the black conservative thought, which can be traced to Booker T. Washington, a major black leader in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Educator Booker T. Washington was one of the first prominent black conservatives. (Source: cliff1066 via Flickr)

Booker T.Washington’s characterization as a black conservative is in contrast with one of his contemporaries, W.E.B Du Bois. Washington and Du Bois were once allies as black leaders, but a rift between the two opened after Washington’s 1895 “Atlanta Compromise” speech. The speech was notable because it advocated an acceptance—for the time being—of the status quo of political racial inequality. Instead of immediately agitating for political civil rights, an aim Washington said was of “the extremest [sic] folly”, he proposed that African-Americans focus on self-improvement within their own communities, accumulating economic success and allying with white southerners to secure protections from the harder edges of segregation. His view was that those with something to offer to society would eventually be given rights.

W.E.B.Du Bois was dubious of this outlook, critiquing Booker T. Washington in a 1903 essay, “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others.” This essay describes Washington’s “compromise” as an “attitude of adjustment and submission”, countering that in the years after Washington laid out his vision, conditions for African Americans in the south had not markedly improved. The divide exemplified by this century-old argument, between those in the black community who would focus on internal community improvement versus those who would focus on pushing back against discrimination in society, lives on today.

There are several perspectives on the “new” black conservatism that has emerged in the past few decades. One view laid out by University of Iowa law professor Angela Onwuachi-Willig, in a lengthy analysis of the roots of Clarence Thomas’ political and judicial worldview, argues that black conservatism not only comes from a place of deep concern for the black community, but also is ideologically distinct from white conservatism in many ways. Two pillars of the new black conservatism she identifies are a desire for the wider black community to escape the self destructive frame of themselves as “victims”, and a desire for blacks to reduce, if not eliminate, their dependence on government programs. Similarly, according to Willig, black conservatives do not deny the continued existence of racism, but simply view economic advancement through self-help as a more productive pursuit.

The other, far more hostile view, comes from Harvard University professor Martin Kilson, in his  “Anatomy of Black Conservatism” (Jstor/subscription required). Unlike Willig, he characterizes modern black conservatism as being little different from white conservatism, incapable of providing substantive solutions advancing the black community. He also challenges the black conservative view that the community is held back in economic advancement by an ideology of victimization, pointing to the success of the Jewish community despite a similar “victim” experience throughout history. Most critically, he characterizes contemporary black conservatives as “ritualistic dissenters,” who are “manipulating the dissident tradition and its modalities (rhetoric, allusions, demeanor) to support established patterns of power.”

That latter view is generally representative of the low regard that black conservatives are held in the broader African-American community. The most infamous example of this is the hatred of conservative Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas. He has been described by some as “self loathing”,  while others have argued that he owes an“apology” to the black community. Efforts by groups (aside from those on the right) to have Justice Thomas speak or receive some sort of honor are usually met with pushback from other African-Americans. Justice Thomas is often characterized as a weak legal mind, and is usually (erroneously) characterized as an ideological vassal of fellow justice Antonin Scalia.

Herman Cain, like many black conservative politicians before him, quickly went from contender to comic relief in media accounts. (markn3tel/ Flickr)

Herman Cain, like many black conservative politicians before him, quickly went from contender to comic relief in media accounts. (Source: markn3tel via Flickr)

The black conservative in the realm of wider politics does not receive better treatment. Some of the most prominent right-wing African American candidates and politicians as of late—former Tea Party congressman Allen West, pizza magnate and former presidential candidate Herman Cain, and former presidential candidate Alan Keyes, have all been successfully characterized less as serious politicians and more as outlandish, cartoonish showmen either lacking ideas, or full of dubious ones. A quick look at all three figures suggests a sort of chicken and egg question; are black conservatives in politics seen as lacking seriousness and sincerity because of unfair attacks from a “liberal media”, as those on the right are wont to claim, or do black politicians seeking greater publicity take conservative positions knowing that they’ll be more prominent as a “dissenting” voice in their community? It is hard to say.

So what is next? The black conservative will still generate confusion and consternation from observers for as long as the Republican Party can be credibly criticized as a party of old, angry white men. A GOP molded to the contours of a more multicultural America, one that can tap into a positive vision of self-reliance, instead of a harsh “tough-luck” libertarianism, is one that might finally gain a real foothold among a broader base of African-Americans. Here the political class has looked to the recently appointed Republican senator out of South Carolina, Tim Scott, as a man with seriousness and a vision.

One might ask why a person of color, but especially a black person in the United States, would identify with a right wing ideology. To ask such a question is to, on some level, question the judgment and pigeonhole the black conservative, to rob them of their agency. Why would, or should, someone see the world through a different lens from the one they’re expected to take, is the usual undertone of such an inquiry. To see the black conservative as anything other than one of many perfectly valid ways to be black in America, is to be profoundly unfair to a serious political outlook. This is not to say that conservatism has the right solutions for the black community, but it is to say that they have the right to a seat at the table.

Moussako, Abraham. “On the Black Conservative .” The Urban Times, , sec. Critical Conversations, March 22, 2013. http://urbantimes.co/2013/03/on-the-black-conservative/ 

The uncanny similarities between presidential challengers John Kerry and Mitt Romney (L to R) do not bode well for a post election America.

Déjà vu in the American election? What the outcome of 2004 can tell us about what will happen in 2013 and beyond.

A beleaguered incumbent occupies the White House, struggling to win re-election. Hobbled by a sluggish economy, this incumbent’s biggest asset is national security. The challenger, meanwhile, is bland, aloof, and a generally middling candidate at best, someone who wrapped up the nomination not because they excited the party faithful, but because that saw him as the least offensive tool for removing the hated incumbent.

If you thought I was describing this year’s presidential election, you would be wrong. Rather, this is a similarly apt description of the 2004 presidential race between George W.Bush and John Kerry. Bush entered the election with public opinion on overall national security in his favor by a clear margin. Kerry held a slight edge on economic issues but was successfully derided as a flip flopper. This year, the script is flipped; the economy has come to eclipse other issues, while Democrats are enjoying a rare advantage on foreign policy. Mitt Romney struggles to make his case for change while trying to shake his ideologically inconsistent past .

But do these similarities actually mean something? It’s obviously too early to see if voters will make the same choice to leave the president unchanged, but the middling president/uninspiring challenger choice voters are faced with does not bode well for the post-election prospects of the US.  This isn’t because the proposed policies of either candidate are necessarily bad; a quick look at both Obama‘s and Romney’s convention speeches shows they lack any, but it is because of the vague mandate that is produced by such a choice. Did the public express confidence in the incumbent, or simply reject a bad challenger? This ambiguity makes a great business for campaign advisers and the political commentariat, but not for governance.

Bush’s hapless second term is a cautionary tale of a president reelected with a weak mandate.

Let’s look to what happened in 2004. Bush wins the election and proclaims that he has earned “political capital” that he now intends to spend. This turn of phrase, said in Bush Jr.’s easily mocked swaggering style, prompted characteristic scoffs in quarters of the Beltway press. The hard policy commitments he made included a Social Security overhaul, comprehensive tax reform, and appointing more conservative justices to the court. It’s instructive to look at what actually happened.

Social Security reform died the most public death. Despite months of pounding from the presidential bully pulpit, Democrats remained steadfast in their opposition to the plan, not proposing any real counter-proposals to the Bush blueprint. The plan’s lukewarm reception among the Republican rank-and-file in Congress did not do much to help. The vaunted tax reforms were outsourced to a congressional commission which turned out dual proposals Democrats and Republicans found ample reason to dislike. Appointment of conservative Supreme Court judges was only accomplished by virtue of the executive power in court appointments, and even that did not happen without a politically messy controversy.

A large part of the failure of Bush’s second term was the fact that his victory was not really an endorsement of the Bush agenda. The result was interpreted—with good reason—by political actors as simply a choice between Bush and Kerry, in which voters elected to stick with the Texan. The Obama campaign is pushing hard the narrative that this election is the same type of choice, and there are signs that voters are buying this framing. Presuming Obama wins out in just under a week, which is by no means a safe assumption, America will be in the same box it was in after Bush’s win.

As a final thought, keep in mind that all of this inaction happened while Bush had a Republican house and Senate  to back him up in the first two years. If the polls are to be believed, an Obama redux won’t have that luxury in the House. Meanwhile even in the Senate, the best case scenario would still leave the Democrats with a majority vulnerable to the threat of filibuster.

(In which I talk about “low information voters” and their effect on American democracy.

“As the presidential election campaign in the United States reaches the home stretch, one thing has become abundantly clear—barring any truly egregious mistakes by either campaign, this election is going to be particularly close. Thanks to the quirks of the Electoral College, the results in what are popularly known as ‘swing states’ are acutely important. However, the voters that are still in play in most of these states, ‘undecided voters,’ are, by many accounts, generally under-informed about the campaign. Typically, they consider themselves too busy to actually keep up with the issues, but still vote out of a sense of civic duty.

The first question this prompts is: how are these voters deciding?…”

Read more here: http://mcgilltribune.com/democracys-weakest-link-uninformed-voters/

Something less controversial for the second piece:

“While private American universities certainly represent the highest end of the tuition spectrum, universities overall in the United States are expensive compared to other developed nations. However, it bears noting that the astronomical figures often quoted in the public debate can be misleading; unlike in Canada, the sticker price of tuition is not paid by most students in the U.S. Indeed, while the list price has risen well past the rate of inflation nationwide, the average actual price paid by students—across all types of universities—has actually stayed steady over the past 10 years, growing from $12,650 in 2001-2002 to $12,950 this past year.

However the discrepancy between this supposed sticker price and the actual price paid by students by no means signifies that the American university system is working. Rather, the extremely inefficient scaling of tuition is merely a manifestation of the system’s dysfunction. This price discrimination is examined under the Bennett Hypothesis, named after the Reagan-era Education Secretary William Bennett.”

Read more here: http://mcgilltribune.com/?p=15874

The main screen of “Democracy 2”, showing the different policy areas and the demographic polling in the center.

Two games present differing visions.

As I have alluded to in an earlier piece, politics is not exactly the most popular subject for videogames, even in genres that would lend themselves to realistic portrayals of the political process. However, in this time of political conventions I thought it would be worth the time to look at the contrasting visions presented by two games, Democracy 2 and President Forever 2008. Their differing visions in part are a function of the different focuses of the games; Democracy 2 is about the business of governance, while President Forever is about the unholy art of attaining political office, in this case the presidency of the US.

Democracy 2 is politics as the civics textbook would tell it. The game puts the player in the position of leader in one of several fictional (though clearly based upon real-world) nations. After setting the rules of the game, such as deciding the proportions of some political demographics (socialists, environmentalists, etc.), the player is thrust into leadership.

There are seven policy areas under the player’s purview, ranging from transport to welfare and tax. These seven areas slice up the main screen, with the middle filled with a box showing approval ratings from all 20 demographics of the electorate, plus two ratings that represent approval from the populace as a whole. Inside of these 7 slices, there are three types of clickable icons, as shown in the above picture; statistics icons (crime rate, GDP, unemployment), policy icons (tax rate, military funding) and arguably the most important set of icons, the flaming-red icons that denote pressing problems, like crime waves or hospital bed shortages.

A look at what’s making the “Patriot” demographic in “Democracy 2” tick.

The game under default settings is quite realistic in its depiction of politics, in the sense that it models “political capital,” or the amount of “control” over the government needed to adjust policies. Adjusting funding levels upward, downward, or eliminating programs altogether require differing levels of this ‘capital’, which is represented as a literal number. While this is a valiant effort to simulate the real-world difficulty of changing longstanding policy, I find that it is still too easy to tweak major policies, but this could be a side effect of continued exposure to American politics.

However, the biggest divergence from realism in Democracy 2 is arguably an inevitable consequence of its design; the lack of unpredictability. Policy pages are accompanied by green and red bars showing effect on both demographic opinions and various statistics. While there are random one-off events that are semi-influenced by policies, the whole concept of The Law of Unintended Consequences seems to be absent from the modeling of policy effects. What you see is essentially what you get, which makes the game predictable after a certain length of time playing it.

The main map view of President Forever. Notice the daily activity selection screen to the right.

Closer to the other side of the idealism to cynicism scale is the electoral simulation President Forever 2008. The developer, 270Soft, has settled very snugly into this niche; other titles focus on Canadian, British, and German elections. The goal of President Forever is very simple; to triumph in the electoral college at the end of a campaign.

The simulation is clever in that it rewards indulgence in the morally ambiguous games of electoral politics, but only to a certain point. Running relentlessly negative ads is nice, until one of them “backfires.” Shifting positions to please differing electorates and regions is good, until it prompts a “flip flopper” headline, and so on.

The game also manages to nicely capture the tendencies of the campaign media. Of the several activities the candidate can perform on any given day, the most essential tool is the barnstorm, which describes your basic “roll into town and shake hands” event. Oftentimes this generates headlines from the in-game newspaper about where the candidate went, which feed the news cycle. A candidate looking tired on the trail generates an even bigger headline.

An accidental commentary on the repetitive nature of a horserace-focused media. Screenshot taken from a user-generated scenario simulating the 2009 New York mayoral race.

In fact, because of the limitations of the computer simulation and a likely desire to sidestep the possibility of political controversy, the in-game media perfectly simulates the preference of the real media to magnify gaffes and focus on campaign set-pieces instead of policy. The overlap between  the headlines generated by the in-game newspaper and the types of useless political pieces highlighted by a recent piece on the comedy website Cracked is almost exact.

So which vision of politics is closer to reality? Both games are true to their respective portions of the political process;  governing is no picnic, but Democracy 2 is a bit too predictable in the policymaking department, and a bit too easy in the problem-solving department. Running for political office, on the other hand, is an exhausting exercise in crunching data, tailoring pitches, and manipulating the media, a task that President Forever manages to capture well enough. Either game makes for an entertaining diversion.

Cover of the biography, but is it worth buying? Keep reading this to find out.

In which I review the first draft of Chris Christie’s political career.

Chris Christie, Republican governor of New Jersey, has found a way into the national spotlight after a mere 2 and a half years at the head of the state. Similar to how Texas journalists capitalized on  the national interest sparked by abortive presidential candidate Rick Perry, it seems the high profile of Chris Christie has prompted two Garden State journalists, Bob Ingle and Michael Symons of Gannett’s New Jersey operation, to write a biography of the Republican governor.

Indeed, one should always be dubious of books that are written “too soon” after anything has happened, even more so when those books are written while something is happening. Books like this one and chronicle of the ’08 campaign Game Change occupy that interesting middle ground between history and journalism, with the latter often being written to soon to bring any clearer a perspective than the daily grind of the news cycle. That said, the book has been making the media rounds, and Chris Christie is a fascinating personality, so I picked it up.

The first thing you notice about the book, probably owing to the incomplete career of its subject, is the length, or lack thereof. At 274 pages of narrative content, the book is a quick read; I zipped through it in only a week. While one can’t expect something like The Power Broker when discussing someone barely halfway through their term as governor of a state, there are definitely issues that get a shorter treatment in this book than they should. But again, we come back to the idea of historical perspective; when time comes for the definitive biography, we’ll probably care less about his time on the Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders, and more about something he did as governor or even in a higher office that hasn’t happened yet.

But taken as what it is, basically a super-extended newspaper or magazine profile of the governor, we do learn some interesting tidbits about Christie’s blue collar upbringing and how it shaped him—largely, I should point out, from himself or his immediate family. Indeed, it becomes clear as one reads the book that most of the “original” research for the book comes from interviewing those in Christie’s immediate circuit (the authors more or less admit this in their acknowledgements).The rest of the sourced quotes, notes and information is a hodgepodge of snips from the Star Ledger and other New Jersey newspapers, as well as a few TV appearances and radio pieces.

This is arguably adequate research, mind you, but it does lead to a bit of a narrative problem, namely that all of the really super awesome-cool things that Christie did in his various roles tend to be told from the perspective of either quotes from Christie himself, the governor’s confidants, or in the coauthors’ “Voice of God” type prose, while the thoughts of those who disagreed with him are rendered through secondhand phrasing and quotes usually sourced back to the sort of newspaper clips I noted earlier. If only for a more textured portrait, talking to some of the people who worked on, say the Corzine campaign in 2009, would largely correct for this problem. Instead, we see direct quotes from various players sourced to older newspaper articles, rather than the result of new interviews for the book.

While I’m on the subject of the narrative, another thing I noticed with the book are the coauthors’ selective conclusion drawing, by which I mean that there are some disputes they’ll discuss without even making much of any evaluative judgment, such as the section where they discuss claims that Christie was too close to News Corporation[1]. The main story there was that of subsidiary News America purportedly hacking into the computers of a competitor and stealing clients, a supposed crime that occurred while Christie was NJ’s US Attorney.

The idea was that calls for investigation by the victimized company, Floorgraphics, went essentially unheeded by Christie’s office. Again, in the book, the story gets the “through the archives” treatment, but what also stuck out at me was that the authors don’t really try to draw any conclusions from the incident, in the way that a historian (or a journalist looking from a 20 year later lens) would probably have.

But then we see the writers adjudicating present day political disputes. Take their treatment of the issue of the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) tunnel, which was to add train capacity into Manhattan—currently NJ Transit and Amtrak trains going from New Jersey into the city have to use a single tunnel in each direction. Christie cancelled the project in 2010, citing cost overruns. The writers characterize the plan as being a “dumb idea”[2] and seem to buy Christie’s claim of cost overruns as rationale for cancelling the tunnel, despite reports challenging that assertion.

The writing in the book is middling at best. Some paragraphs have awkward parenthetical addendums tacked on, including one entire paragraph that is a parenthetical note[3]. The sections where the coauthors quote their own previous articles or reference their own involvement in the political landscape (“Coauthor Michael Symons, writing in USA Today…”[4]) also rubbed me the wrong way. Not that writers shouldn’t feel free to namecheck themselves in their own books, but the self quotations here seem like part of an attempt to inflate their influence in the NJ press corps in front of the national audience reading the book.

Conclusion

So, should you buy this book? Depends on how interested you are in the topic. Despite all of the problems I point out above, the reader does come away with some insight into Chris Christie’s upbringing and how that shaped him. Unfortunately, basically all of these insights come from him and his family. The information on Christie’s political career is there, but nothing that you wouldn’t get from reading a New Yorker type profile piece on him, except somewhat more detail. Buy the book if you must, but at a list  price of $25.99 US, by the time the price is equal to the quality of the content, it’ll be out of date[5].


[1] Pages 119-121

[2] Page 233

[3] Page 85

[4] Page 253. That section went on for an entire paragraph.

[5] To be fair, that list price is easy to avoid. I’d suggest a trip to an online bookseller, or get it at a warehouse club.


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